The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we work. According to a January 2020 Robert Half survey, 56% of managers had increased remote work opportunities for staff in the past three years. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the adoption of remote work, providing employees the flexibility to work from home while reducing commute times. Additionally, it provides employers the ability to hire qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds.
With the benefits of remote work also come challenges, such as provisions for disability accommodation or medically related leaves of absence. In December 2020, the Department of Labor (DOL) provided limited guidance for employers to lean on, outlining when employers may utilize electronic postings to satisfy notice requirements under certain federal laws like the Family and Medical leave Act (FMLA), and clarifying when telemedicine may count as 'in-person’ visits for the purpose of making FMLA eligibility determinations.
Despite the recent government agency clarity surrounding some disability considerations in the remote workspace, several challenges remain. Here are five tips for effectively supporting employees with disabilities or potential disabilities in a remote work environment:
- Transitioning from COVID-19 accommodations to ongoing accommodations: Employers may be required to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities under state, local or federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The interactive process should take into account factors such as an employee’s actual work restrictions and working conditions. Reasonable accommodations may change over a period of time. For employers who have amended their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this may mean the temporary adjustments or accommodations made as a result of the pandemic need to be reevaluated in the future.
- Maintaining confidentiality: Even in a remote work setting, managers and HR must actively maintain the confidentiality of employees' health information. What You Should Know guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides tips to employers, including keeping notepads and laptops in a place that is not accessible by others and using codes or abbreviations during note taking. Some additional ways employers can support managers and HR contacts who work remotely include:
- Being familiar with local, state and federal recordkeeping requirements, and providing access to a secure electronic platform that also allows for separation of employee health information from other employment-related documents
- Equipping employees with sound machines for their homes, particularly when sound insulation is of concern
- Requiring passwords or other security settings on at-home work equipment like mobile phones and laptops
- Recognizing signs: Under certain federal, state or local laws, an employer may be responsible for recognizing signs that a reasonable accommodation or a mandated leave might be needed but recognizing those cues from a remote employee can be more difficult. In the absence of an explicit employee request, here are a few indicators that an interactive process may be needed:
- Responses during performance discussions which hint that work restrictions related to a disability or potential disability may exist, such as, “my headaches are making it difficult to concentrate” or “I feel depressed working at home”
requests for sick leave, time off for appointments or other time off on a frequent basis
- Signs of substance impairment, such as slurred or profane speech during calls, bloodshot or droopy eyes during video conferences, or changes in email behaviors like increased typing errors or aggressive or lethargic responses. While substance abuse itself is not a covered disability for accommodation under the ADA, treatment for the drug or alcohol abuse may be
- Providing adequate home or remote office setups: Reasonable accommodations should not be limited to physical office locations. Employees, and especially those with disabilities, may have an even greater need for additional home office equipment due to a lack of effective setup generally found at a home office. In fact, failure to proactively provide adequate remote work setup could result in a greater number of workers’ compensation claims down the road, such as wrist, neck or back injuries. Actions to proactively support remote workers may include such things as:
- Establishing relationships with “preferred” office equipment vendors to streamline and add consistency to the fulfillment of employee requests
- Creating illustrated guides or providing live electronic support to assist employees with setting up their home office equipment in the correct fashion
- Encouraging short breaks throughout the day, since remote employees may be less inclined to leave their workstations for meals or coffee breaks
- Thinking beyond ergonomics or visible signs of impairment, such as additional accommodations which may be needed to support other types of disabilities like audio or visual impairments
- Tracking statutory leave: Time off tracking for statutory protections, such as intermittent leave under the FMLA, may be more difficult in a remote work environment since employers are unable to physically see when employees are absent from work. A consistent leave tracking process is recommended. Additionally, managers and HR should set clear expectations, in writing, regarding an employee’s requirement to track all protected time off taken, and schedule regular meetings to check-in with employees on their remaining leave entitlement and anticipated return to work date.
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