Knock Your Socks Off: A Conversation with EEOC Leaders

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This is the first in a series of articles summarizing key topics discussed at Ward and Smith's Fall Employment Law Update Webinar.

Mandatory vaccinations, harassment and retaliation charges, and guidance and enforcement priorities are just some of the important issues U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) officials addressed at Ward and Smith's Fall Employment Law Update.

I moderated the discussion that was led by Tom Colclough, Deputy District Director of the EEOC Charlotte District Office, and Glory Gervacio Suare, Director of the EEOC Raleigh Area Office.

Over his 25 years with the EEOC, Colclough has investigated charges and complaints of discrimination, led high-performing teams, and served in various leadership positions. Currently, he plays a key role in fulfilling the agency's mission through strategic enforcement, management, and planning.

Gervacio's background includes serving as the director of the EEOC's Honolulu office. Her career with the Commission began as an enforcement investigator in 2001, and she continually provides outreach and educational assistance to various committees in her jurisdiction.

The conversation began with an analysis of how many charges the EEOC handles in an average year, and of those charges, how many go through mediation, conciliation, or litigation. "We normally receive between 65,000 and 100,000 charges per year," said Colclough. "This year, it was around 65,000. In our district, we received about 5,500 charges this year."

Of that amount, Colclough explained that the EEOC:

  • Resolved 17.8% of cases through the negotiated settlement process;
  • Completed approximately 500 successful mediations;
  • Issued a 'no cause' determination for 65% of cases; and
  • Dismissed around 29% for untimely filing or because a summary review of the Charge allowed the investigator to determine that a violation did not occur.

The leading types of charges last year included retaliation, followed by disability and race. "This is interesting because, in the previous year, race was the second type of charge that was filed," commented Gervacio. "So I think we're seeing a trend because of COVID, and with reasonable accommodation requests and vaccination mandates, we're probably going to see more disability charges in the near future."

Enforcement Priorities

The local EEOC district office focuses their efforts in part on supporting six national strategic enforcement priorities, says Colclough. These enforcement priorities include:

  • Eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring;
  • Protecting immigrants, migrants, and other vulnerable workers;
  • Addressing emerging and developing issues;
  • Enforcing equal pay laws;
  • Preserving access to the legal system; and
  • Preventing harassment through systemic enforcement and targeted outreach.

Colclough indicated his district has developed a complement plan to address issues that are important to the local community: "For the most part, we're looking at vulnerable workers, also emerging issues dealing with the ADA. As you know, COVID is an emerging issue that continues to develop every single day. And retaliation is the number one priority."

Retaliation goes beyond someone receiving an adverse result after objecting to a form of harassment or discrimination. "There's more to retaliation than just the mirror opposition or exercising a right to complain," noted Gervacio. "Disability is on the rise, and there's a component of retaliation when somebody requests a reasonable accommodation due to their disability."

COVID Vaccinations

The subject of mask mandates and vaccination requirements is still on employers' minds and continually evolving. Generally, officials at the EEOC expect to see a substantial increase in COVID-related charges and inquiries pertaining to reasonable accommodations.

For those who watch the news every day, it's clear that vaccination mandates remain a hot button issue, explained Colclough. "One thing I'd like to folks to know is that, on our website, we clearly state that federal laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19."

Gervacio illuminated the subject with an analysis of a recent case involving United Airlines, in which a court order placed a temporary stay on the company's vaccination mandate. Basically, the judge ordered that placing employees on unpaid leave for requesting an exception to the airline's vaccination mandate due to a disability or religious exemption is not a reasonable accommodation.

"We are still waiting on guidance from our headquarters on how to address that," said Gervacio, "so it is unfolding as we speak."

In light of this development, employers should understand that it is doubtful that placing an individual who requests an exemption to a vaccine mandate on unpaid leave is a reasonable accommodation. Until the EEOC provides updated technical guidance, a potential best practice for employers is to go through an interactive process for all disability and religious-related exemption requests.

Is Long COVID a Disability?

Recently, the EEOC stated that it would be adopting the Department of Health and Human Services position on "long COVID" is to classify it as an ADA disability. The determination ultimately turns on whether or not it substantially limits one or more daily activities.

Employers should educate themselves on what "long COVID" is and its symptoms and understand that since it could potentially be classified as an ADA disability, they should be prepared to engage in an interactive discussion with the employee.

Working from Home

At the pandemic's start, many employers suddenly had to transition the majority of their workforce to a remote or a virtual environment. With that in mind, the question of which positions are appropriate for telework remains relevant.

Given a choice, many employees would choose to work from home, but that may not be in the employer's best interest. "Telework as a reasonable accommodation "might be the gold Cadillac standard of what an individual wants," explained Colclough, "but that's not necessarily what the employer has to provide." Employers only need to consider whether an accommodation allows the individual to perform the essential job functions.

"Telework is just one of many tools of accommodation an employer has in their toolkit," adds Colclough. Employers may sometimes feel that the employee is driving the interactive process and that they have to comply with the employee's preferred accommodation.

Ultimately, however, it is up to the employer to decide what accommodations are reasonable based on the needs of the business and what will allow the employee to perform the essential job functions. Employers have various options for those who are averse to getting the vaccine, whether their request for an exception is ADA-related or due to a religious exemption. As far as reasonable accommodations, the following are listed on the EEOC's website as technical guidance on potential reasonable accommodations to vaccine mandates:

  • Social distancing, e., placing an individual in their own office;
  • Modifying shifts to limit interactions with other employees and customers;
  • Periodic testing; and
  • Reassignment.

Gervacio pointed out that "[t]here are many examples of reasonable accommodation listed on the Job Accommodation Network. This service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy offers technical guidance on various types of accommodations for certain disabilities, including specific COVID-related issues from telework."

An unexpected outcome the EEOC has seen after the rise of telework is an increased number of sexual harassment complaints over the past 18 months. These complaints have originated from Zoom meetings, Facebook, and other forms of social media.

Employers should consider developing standards for how employees are expected to behave in a virtual environment, advised Colclough. "We've got to convince people to get back to being as professional as they were in person," he said. "And perhaps that will help some harassment complaints go down."

Gervacio recommended that employers train their managers and supervisors. "A lot of the charges we get, it seems the manager or supervisor is not aware of their roles and responsibilities, and whether or not they need to take action," commented Gervacio. "This training should be tailored to the workforce because you want them to be engaged."

Another update the EEOC leaders mentioned included a change to the notice of right to sue. When the EEOC decides to close an investigation, it issues what is commonly referred to as a notice of right to sue, which allows the charging party to file a federal lawsuit if they want to pursue the claim further.

Finally, the EEOC leaders shared that recently, the regulations were amended to make digital service an acceptable form of communication for this notice. "Doing it digitally is much, much faster," added Colclough, "and we get an almost instantaneous notice when parties take a look at it. This helps us ensure the right to sue got into the right hands."

© 2024 Ward and Smith, P.A. For further information regarding the issues described above, please contact Hayley R. Wells.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or fact situation. No action should be taken in reliance upon the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.

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