By Michael Rhoads, December 7, 2021

Last month, the EEOC updated its guidance on What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws under Section M. Retaliation and Interference. The anti-retaliation protections outlined in the guidance only apply to the exercise of rights under the federal EEO laws.  The questions and corresponding answers are meant to guide federal agencies when considering the rights of job applicants, employees, and former employees in connection with COVID-19.

Some of those questions are below, along with our thoughts and EEOC’s answers:

Do job applicants and employees (including former employees) have protections from retaliation for exercising equal employment opportunity (EEO) rights in connection with COVID-19?

According to the EEOC guidance: “Speaking out about or exercising rights related to workplace discrimination is called ‘protected activity.’ Engaging in protected activity, however, does not shield an employee from discipline, discharge, or other employer actions taken for reasons unrelated to the protected activity.”

For examples of COVID retaliation join Katherine Atkinson on Wednesday, January 19 from 1:00-2:15 PM ET for the webinar Stop the Spread of COVID-related Retaliation in the Federal Workplace

Who is protected from retaliation?

The retaliation protections apply to all types of employees including full-time, part-time, probationary, seasonal, and temporary. It is also important to note that an employee’s or applicant’s citizenship or work authorization status is not a factor when considering retaliation protections.

When do Retaliation protections apply?

Always. When considering retaliation protections, consider whether the employee or applicant has a reasonable belief that an EEO law has been violated in the workplace. The employee or applicant must also come forward with those beliefs in a “reasonable manner.”

When is an employer action based on an employee’s EEO activity serious enough to be unlawful retaliation?

This is the hardest question to answer, but if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.  Per the EEOC’s guidance: “Retaliation includes any employer action in response to EEO activity that could deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected EEO activity.” Examples include suspensions, denying a promotion, negative or less than favorable evaluations, and transfers. Retaliation can also take place outside of the workplace. An action by the employer is still considered retaliatory even if the employee or applicant moves forward with an EEO complaint or complaint-related process.

Does this mean that an employer can never take action against someone who has engaged in EEO activity?

No.  If an employer takes action against an employee or applicant who has engaged in EEO activity, the action must be based on the employee’s or applicant’s conduct or performance.

For example, if an employee’s performance slips, or if the employee makes harassing statements to co-workers, employers may respond with appropriate action.

Does the law provide any additional protections to safeguard ADA rights?

Yes. For example, if an employee or applicant asks for a religious accommodation for an FDA-approved vaccine, this type of accommodation request is covered under the ADA. Employers should engage in their agency’s reasonable accommodation process in such circumstances.

An important reminder comes at the end of the question-and-answer segment: “The employer’s actions may still violate the ADA’s interference provision even if an employer does not actually carry out a threat, and even if the employee is not deterred from exercising ADA rights.”

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you back here in the New Year. Stay safe, and remember, we’re all in this together.  [email protected]

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