The changing face of employment law during a global pandemic

Prompted by Jeff Bezos’s plans to test all Amazon employees for the virus that causes COVID-19, we wondered whether employers can mandate employee testing, regardless of symptoms. The issue pits public safety against personal privacy, but limited testing availability has rendered the question somewhat moot.

But as the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted, asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers can spread the virus without realizing they’re infected. To learn more about workers’ rights in this arena, we spoke to Tricia Bozyk Sherno, counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, who focuses on employment and general commercial litigation.

The answer, for now, is not entirely straightforward, though updates from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could make the situation clearer going forward as more tests are made available and state governments begin pushing to reopen businesses.

Sherno offered a fair amount of insight into the EEOC’s updated guidance and made some predictions about how things may look for both employers and workers going forward.

TechCrunch: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, what sorts of laws governed an employer’s ability to test employees for infectious diseases?

Tricia Bozyk Sherno: Covered employers (employers with 15 or more employees) must comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which limits an employer’s ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examinations. (Note that certain states may also have similar statutes in place.) Generally, disability-related inquiries and medical examinations are prohibited by the ADA except in limited circumstances. A “medical examination” is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health — so infectious disease testing would fall into this category.