How to Handle Protective Gear in the Workplace During COVID-19

Lately you may have seen many people walking around with facemasks and gloves in order to protect themselves from COVID-19 (coronavirus).

But what about the use of protective gear in the workplace? Some employers, such as restaurants or hotels, may not want to allow their employees to wear such protective gear because of their image and the perception to their customers and clients. Other employers may want to require employees to wear protective gear in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Can employers do this?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an “individual with a disability” as a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. EEOC guidance provides that seasonal influenza or H1N1 influenza is not considered a disability under the ADA. Therefore, COVID-19, is arguably not a protected disability under the ADA. Thus, employers may deny a request for wearing protective gear (e.g., gloves and face masks) for employees who are concerned about contracting COVID-19.

If the employee has an underlying disability that would require the employee to wear protective gear, then the employer may need to accommodate the employee by allowing him or her to wear it as long as the accommodation does not interfere with the employee’s essential job functions and does not pose an undue hardship. Notably, customer preference is not an undue hardship under the ADA.

Additionally, an employer is free to mandate the use of protective gear. However, if an employee has an underlying disability and needs some accommodation in using protective gear then the employer would need to provide an accommodation to the employee unless it poses an undue hardship. For example, if the employee has a latex allergy then the employer may need to provide a non-latex alternative for the employee.

For more information, contact one of our employment attorneys.