The EEOC has warned employers to avoid swine flu discrimination. Really? Swine flu discrimination? Did the EEOC sneak in a new protected class?
Well, not exactly. On May 11th the EEOC published on its website a short comment titled “Employment Discrimination and the 2009 H1N1 Flu Virus (Swine Flu).” The EEOC suggests that employers should refrain from national origin discrimination against Mexicans.
In other words, employers should refrain from making employment decisions based merely on the fact that an individual hails from Mexico. For example, refusing to hire individuals of Mexican origin because of a belief that Mexicans may be ill with swine flu could run afoul of Title VII, not because of swine flu, but because of the nationality factor.
Presumably a neutral swine flu policy would pass muster. A neutral policy that requires any infected individuals, regardless of national origin, to take a leave of absence would probably not violate Title VII. The EEOC’s website would be more helpful to employers if it addressed appropriate neutral policies.
On the swine flu web page, the EEOC also cites the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC does not expressly state, however, that swine flu would qualify as a disability under the ADA. Again, perhaps the EEOC could help employers by elucidating on this issue.
In most cases a temporary sickness such as the flu will not qualify as a disability. Nevertheless, the EEOC points to its publications addressing disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, as will as pre-hire questions and medical exams.
It is conceivable that employers could delve into medical issues in connection with victims of swine flu, say, perhaps, in connection with an FMLA or other leave of absence. As may be the case whenever employers address medical concerns, medical inquiries associated with swine flu cases should be handled with care. Keep the inquiries narrowly tailored to focus job-related issues. Avoid deviating into a general fitness for duty examination that might inappropriately evaluate disabilities. Avoid singling out protected classes. Maintain confidentiality.
As the nation’s attention is fixed on this topic of public health, the EEOC has appropriately suggested that EEO practices may be implicated. The substance of the comments are a little thin, doubtless due to the spontaneity of the outbreak. Perhaps the EEOC will develop guidelines in preparation for future outbreaks.
Christopher W. Olmsted, Esq.
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC