On November 17, 2021, the EEOC, as it has done throughout the pandemic, updated its COVID-19 Technical Assistance manual. The additional questions and answers clarify that applicants and current and former employees are protected from relation for exercising EEO rights in connection with COVID-19. The guidance identifies particular examples of protected activity, which employees may engage in without fear of retaliation, including:

  • Filing a charge, complaint, or lawsuit, regardless whether the underlying discrimination allegation is successful or timely. For example, employers may not retaliate against employees who file charges with the EEOC alleging that their supervisor unlawfully disclosed confidential medical information (such as a COVID-19 diagnosis), even if the EEOC later decides there is no merit to the underlying charges.  Moreover, a supervisor may not give a false negative job reference to punish a former employee for making an EEO complaint, or refuse to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s EEO complaint against a prior employer.
  • Reporting alleged EEO violations to a supervisor or answering questions during an employer investigation of the alleged harassment. For example, an Asian American employee who tells a manager or human resources official that a coworker made abusive comments accusing Asian people of spreading COVID-19 is protected from retaliation for reporting the harassment. Workplace discrimination laws also prohibit retaliation against employees for reporting harassing workplace comments about their religious reasons for not being vaccinated. Similarly, workplace discrimination laws prohibit retaliation against an employee for reporting sexually harassing comments made during a work video conference meeting.
  • Resisting harassment, intervening to protect coworkers from harassment, or refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination. For example, workplace discrimination laws protect a supervisor who refuses to carry out management’s instruction not to hire certain applicants based on the sex-based presumption that they might use parental leave or have childcare needs, or to steer them to particular types of jobs.
  • Requesting accommodation of a disability (potentially including a pregnancy-related medical condition) or a religious belief, practice, or observance regardless of whether the request is granted or denied. For example, the EEO laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against an employee for requesting continued telework as a disability accommodation after a workplace reopens.  Similarly, requesting religious accommodation, such as modified protective gear that can be worn with religious garb, is protected activity.  Requests for accommodation are protected activity even if the individual is not legally entitled to accommodation, such as where the employee’s medical condition is not ultimately deemed a disability under the ADA, or where accommodation would pose an undue hardship.

The guidance also explains that interference with an individual’s exercise of their rights under the ADA is prohibited, and provides examples of prohibited interference, including the use of threats to discourage someone from seeking a reasonable accommodation or exerting pressure on an employee not to file a discrimination complaint.

This updated guidance from the EEOC comes on the heels of announcements from the EEOC, DOL and NLRB last week that they are partnering to protect workers from retaliation and interference with their rights.  This renewed focus on retaliation suggests that employers should be reviewing and updating their non-retaliation policies.

Ballard Spahr’s Labor & Employment Group has assisted employers across the nation in revising and updating workplace policies and in addressing accommodation requests, concerns, or complaints related to COVID-19. Through the COVID-19 Resource Center, our lawyers have kept our clients and friends informed on COVID-19 developments throughout the pandemic.