Nearly half of US adults have a medical condition which severely increases their risk of experiencing acute complications as a result of contracting COVID-19.
The primary source of protections for immunocompromised individuals during COVID-19 is the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 civil rights law that codifies protections for individuals with disabilities. Title I of the act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of an individual’s disability status. While the legislation has long been the hallmark of disability protections, COVID-19 has exposed its limitations.
Current law fails to adequately protect immunocompromised and high-risk individuals, forcing many Americans into an impossible decision between sacrificing their health or their employment.
Under the ADA, individuals with disabilities have the right to request reasonable accommodations, modifications which allow them to fulfill their job requirements while limiting the interference of their disability. This policy allows individuals to request accommodations if their disability exacerbates the threat posed to them by COVID-19. High-risk individuals can request accommodations such as working remotely, altering their workplace responsibilities or being provided personal protective equipment.
These accommodations are not enough to safeguard the health of high-risk individuals in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Namely, the ADA fails to protect individuals with disabilities with working family members, elderly Americans and pregnant workers.
A critical oversight in current workplace protections is the fact that only an individual with a disability may exercise the right to request reasonable accommodations. This right is not extended to others residing within the individual’s home. For example, while an individual with a disability may have the option to telework, their spouse does not have the same legal protections.
The health of a household is only as strong as its weakest link. If an immunocompromised individual is teleworking to avoid exposure to COVID-19, their efforts are rendered moot the moment they share a meal or a bedroom with a partner who has worked in an exposed setting.
Americans living in a home with immunocompromised loved ones are compelled to choose between supporting their families financially or safeguarding their loved one’s health.
This decision yields heart-wrenching results. In the case of Wendy Jackson and her severely immunocompromised spouse Robert Jackson, Wendy was not granted accommodations to work remotely. Because Wendy risks high levels of exposure as an emergency room physician, she and Robert have decided to social distance within their home.
They do not touch. They sleep in separate bedrooms. At ages 62 and 71, they sacrifice intimacy to keep one another safe. The law does not afford them another option.
Their story makes the solution clear. In the time of a pandemic, the right to reasonable accommodations should be expanded to all people living with an immunocompromised individual.
In addition to an expansion of disability protections, our current legal framework fails to protect other categories of high-risk individuals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that age is a COVID-19 risk factor, with 80% of COVID-19 deaths affecting adults aged 65 years and older.
Workplace protections for the elderly only require elderly workers to be afforded the same treatment as younger workers. Elderly workers do not have a legal right to request accommodations to reduce their COVID-19 exposure. Many elderly workers in high risk environments, such as schools, have taken the financial risk of entering into early retirement to avoid exposure.
Similarly, pregnant women are considered a high-risk category but are not afforded the right to request accommodations. Instead, women must choose to either not go to work in exposed environments or to continue to work at the expense of their health. The former option jeopardizes a woman’s economic stability and curbs gender equity in the workplace. The latter jeopardizes the woman’s health and that of her child.
COVID-19 demands renewed workplace protections for high-risk individuals, regardless of disability status. The choice between financial stability and health is not one any American should face.
Individuals with disabilities who feel their ADA rights have been violated may file a grievance with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Bloomington residents may also request the aid of the Bloomington Human Rights Commission, and IU students, staff and faculty may contact the Office of Institutional Equity.
Maddie Butler (she/her) is a sophomore studying International Law and Arabic at IU. She is the Director General of Indiana Model United Nations.