Federal Employees may need Reasonable Accommodation despite OMB and Executive Order Requiring Mask Mandate for Federal Employees
New guidance issued by Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the White House require that federal employees and contractors wear face mask coverings while inside all federal building as well as to allow telework whenever feasible and limit the total number of federal employees in buildings to no more than 25% of normal capacity. The only exception to the rule is if an employee is in an enclosed office space, then they are allowed to briefly remove their mask to eat and/or drink. While this new executive guidance is much needed during the current crisis of the National Pandemic, there still may be employees who need reasonable accommodation because either they have medical conditions that preclude the wearing of face covering for that amount of time within a day and/or employees with health conditions that make them too high risk for exposure even with the mask mandate policy. In these situations, it is imperative that federal employees understand their rights to request the implementation of effective reasonable accommodations that will address their unique circumstances.
Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Federal agencies have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees with medical conditions that qualify as disabilities. Essentially, if an employee has a mental and/or physical health condition that significantly limits the employees ability to perform a major life activity (i.e., seeing, sitting, standing, walking, talking, caring for one self, performing manual tasks), but they can still perform the essential functions of their job then the employee will be deemed a “qualified individual with disability.” The federal agency will then determine if it can implement an effective reasonable accommodation that enables the disabled worker to perform their job duties without hardship. If a federal employee has concerns about having a medical condition that does not allow them to wear a mask for a full day of work and/or that if doing so is not sufficient protection, then the employee should disclose this information to their agency. Most Federal agencies have a reasonable accommodation process that allows employees to safely and privately reveal their medical conditions, and to then begin the interactive process with the appropriate officials to make a determination if an effective accommodation should and can be implemented. As Federal agencies begin to implement policies on the return of their employees to office buildings, employees should be proactive in seeking accommodations so they can timely get the proper safeguards in place to provide the necessary protections to keep employees safe.
If you are a federal employee with a medical condition impacted by COVID-19 that needs assistance with either obtaining a reasonable accommodation and/or already experiencing obstacles while seeking accommodation, contact the Federal Practice Group for a consultation to better understand your rights in order to assist you in being able to successfully obtain the necessary accommodation.
By Joanna Friedman a partner at the Federal Practice Group