We have been blogging for more than five years about the rising litigation threat over website accessibility, and the surrounding confusion about what type of compliance, if any, is required. In our initial blog post on this topic in January 2016, we stated that the question as to whether a business’s website and mobile app needed to be accessible with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) had no definitive answer at that time because (i) although Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of disability with regard to their participation and equal enjoyment in places of public accommodation, the statute did not explicitly define whether a place of public accommodation must be a physical place or facility; (ii) there were no regulations from the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) (the federal agency that enforces Title III of the ADA) regarding website accessibility and without applicable regulations, it was unclear how a court would address a lawsuit over website accessibility; and (iii) adding to this uncertainty, the DOJ had emphasized that, despite the lack of regulations, businesses should make websites accessible to the disabled, and relied on a set of guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”).
Five years later, this question still has no definitive answer. And, the DOJ still has yet to promulgate regulations regarding businesses’ obligations to make websites accessible to individuals with visual and hearing impairments. In April, however, an extremely positive development occurred for businesses when, in the matter of Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) held that websites are NOT places of public accommodation and thus are NOT covered by Title III of the ADA.
The legal landscape facing employers seems as difficult to navigate as it has ever been. Keeping track of the ever-changing patchwork of federal, state and local laws governing the workplace may often seem like a full-time job whether you are a human resources professional, in-house attorney or business owner. Change appears to be the one constant. As President Trump’s Administration comes to an end, employers will continue to closely track the changes taking place at the NLRB, the DOL and the EEOC. At the same time, a number of states will continue introducing new laws and regulations governing workplaces across the country, making it more important than ever for employers to pay attention to the bills pending in the legislatures of the states where they operate. This complimentary webinar series will focus on a host of the most challenging and timely issues facing employers, examining past trends and looking ahead at the issues most likely to arise.
To register for an individual webinar in the series, click on the link in the program description below. To register for the entire 2021 series, click here to send us an email request, and we will register you. If you missed any of our past programs from our annual Labor and Employment Webinar Series, click here to subscribe to our YouTube channel to access those webinars.
With the availability of a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine edging closer and closer, employers understandably have a number of questions regarding their role in the workplace – whether and when they can require a vaccination, what exceptions are required in a mandatory vaccination program, and whether they should require (as opposed to encourage and facilitate) the COVID-19 vaccine for employees once it becomes available. This summer, the World Health Organization reported that nearly 200 potential vaccines were currently being developed in labs across the world, and as of mid-October, disclosed that more than 40 had advanced to clinical stage testing on humans. Drug manufacturers estimate that a vaccine will be ready and approved for general use by the end of this year, although logistically not ready for widespread distribution until mid-2021. Indeed, just over the past couple of weeks, Pfizer and Moderna have made promising announcements regarding the results of their clinical trials. Namely, on Monday, November 9, 2020, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a vaccine candidate against COVID-19 achieved success in the firm interim analysis from the Phase 3 study. The vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first interim efficacy analysis. According to the announcement, submission for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planned for soon after the required safety milestone is achieved, which is currently expected to occur in the third week of November. Additionally, as reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on November 16, 2020, there have been promising interim results from a clinical trial of a NIH-Modern COVID-19 vaccine. An independent data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) reported that the vaccine candidate was safe and well-tolerated and noted a vaccine efficacy rate of 94.5%. Accordingly, as the reality of a vaccination nears, employers are inquiring whether they can and should mandate the vaccine for their employees.
Can Employers Require Employees to Take the COVID-19 Vaccine?
As a threshold matter, it should be noted that, according to a member of the federal advisory panel on immunizations that will be making recommendations to the CDC on who should get the first doses, vaccines authorized under the FDA’s emergency use authority, as these COVID-19 vaccinations will be at the start, cannot be mandated. Any COVID-19 vaccine brought to market under an EUA instead of the normal non-emergency approval process will, by necessity, lack long term safety data. Once a vaccine receives an EUA from FDA, FDA has authorized the vaccine for use according to the terms of the EUA.
In general though, employers can require vaccination as a term and condition of employment, but such practice is not without limitations, nor is it always recommended. Although the issue is only now coming to the forefront of our national conscience, mandatory vaccinations in the workplace are not new, and have been particularly prevalent among healthcare providers. Some variability exists under federal law and among federal agencies, but for the most part, mandatory vaccination programs are permissible, as long as employers consider religious accommodation requests under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and medical accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
OSHA has long taken the position that employers can require employees to take flu and other vaccines, but emphasizes that employees “need to be properly informed of the benefits of vaccinations.” In the healthcare industry, for example, mandatory vaccination programs for employees are common. Indeed, several states have laws that require healthcare employers to offer the vaccine or to ensure that employees receive it (with certain exceptions). The CDC has long recommended that all healthcare workers get vaccinated, including all workers having direct and indirect patient care involvement and exposure.
With relatively little fanfare, the State of Maryland recently enacted a law requiring hotels and other places of lodging (with at least 4 guestrooms) to provide beds of certain heights in accessible guestrooms for individuals with disabilities. Of note, providing beds of specified heights in accessible guestrooms is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This law, titled an “Act for Lodging Establishments – Accessible Rooms for Individuals with Disabilities – Bed Height,” requires each accessible guestroom in a Maryland hotel or other place of lodging to be furnished with a bed that measures at least 20 inches but not more than 23 inches from the floor to the top of the mattress, and has at least a 7-inch vertical clearance under the bed for lift access. Average bed heights tend to be 25 inches or more, while the average seat height of many wheelchairs is 19 inches. So, these new bed height requirements will certainly require some changes.
The new bed height requirements must be met by the following dates:
25% of the beds in accessible guestrooms must meet these requirements by December 31, 2021;
50% of the beds in accessible guestrooms must meet these requirements by December 31, 2022;
75% of the beds in accessible guestrooms must meet these requirements by December 31, 2023; and
100% of the beds in accessible guestrooms must meet these requirements by December 31, 2024.
While hotels and other places of lodging in Maryland continue to try and regroup and adapt in the wake of the pandemic, this is yet another thing that they will have to keep in mind, and another cost they will need to incur. While 25% of the beds in accessible guestrooms do not need to meet these new requirements until the end of next year, this is not something that can be done overnight. So, hotels should begin implementing plans for these new beds in the coming months in order to ensure that the applicable deadlines can be met. Indeed, to the extent that accessible guestrooms are vacant already due to the pandemic and the necessary work can be done safely in accordance with CDC, OSHA, and other applicable guidelines, this might be an ideal time for Maryland hotels to make the necessary changes to avoid disruption, and ensure compliance with the new law.
As the U.S. enters month seven of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers continue to grapple with how to keep employees safe without violating the rights of employees protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has issued guidance to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace encouraging employers to: (1) actively encourage sick employees to stay home; (2) conduct daily in person health checks such as temperature and symptom screenings; and (3) ensure that workers are able to follow social distancing guidelines as much as practicable and encouraging employees to wear face masks where social distancing is not possible. Employers should remain vigilant against enacting policies meant to keep employees safe but have a disparate impact on employees in a protected class.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against job applicants and/or employees with disabilities. If a job applicant or employee has a disability and requests an accommodation, employers must engage in an interactive process and are required to provide a reasonable accommodation to the extent it does not cause the employer undue hardship.
In the context of COVID-19, employers may screen employees entering the workplace for COVID-19 symptoms consistent with CDC guidance. For example, an employer may: (1) ask questions about COVID-19 diagnosis or testing, COVID-19 symptoms, and exposure to anyone with COVID-19 (but employers should be sure the question is broad and does not ask employees about specific family members so as not to run afoul of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”)); (2) take an employee’s temperature; and (3) administer COVID-19 viral tests (but not anti-body tests). If an employee is screened and has symptoms that the CDC has identified as consistent with COVID-19, the employer may – and indeed, should – exclude the employee from the workplace. It is also okay – and again, advisable – for an employer to send an employee home who reports feeling ill during the workday.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published guidance for employers on disability-related concerns in light of COVID-19. The EEOC enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws including the requirements for reasonable accommodations and rules about medical examinations and inquiries under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In a post What You Should Know About the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and the Coronavirus, the EEOC has made clear that while the ADA rules continue to apply, they “do not interfere with or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] about steps employers should take regarding the Coronavirus.”
Specifically, the CDC has issued Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers, which provides various recommendations including that employers “actively encourage” sick employees to stay home, perform routine environmental cleaning, emphasize that employees use respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, and advise employees before traveling to take certain steps.
Notably, the Interim Guidance provides the following recommendations, which Continue reading →
Since publishing our previous post last month, there have been a number of significant developments related to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus – now officially called “COVID-19.” Notably, during the week of February 23, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) reported community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in California, Oregon, and Washington. Community spread in Washington resulted in the first death in the U.S. from COVID-19, as well as the first reported case of COVID-19 in a health care worker, and the first potential outbreak in a long-term care facility.
Recent Developments and Federal Guidance
CDC has published an Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers, cautioning employers to use the guidance to determine the risk of the Coronavirus, and not to use race or country of origin to make a determination. The guidance covers recommended strategies for employers to use, including: (1) actively encouraging sick employees to stay home; (2) separating sick employees; (3) emphasizing staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees; (4) performing routine environmental cleaning; and (5) advising employees before traveling to consult CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices and other CDC guidance. Additionally, the guidance states that if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“2019-nCoV” or “coronavirus”) is a respiratory illness that, with its spread to the United States, is raising important issues for employers. This guide explains the outbreak, the legal implications of it, and how employers should be responding now to employees who might have the virus, are caring for affected family members, or are otherwise concerned about their health in the workplace.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
First detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, 2019-nCoV is a respiratory virus reportedly linked to a large outdoor seafood and animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. However, a growing number of patients reportedly have not had exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread is occurring. At this time, it is unclear how easily the virus is spreading between people. Symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, runny nose, headache, sore throat, and the general feeling of being unwell. The incubation period is approximately 14 days, during which time an individual may see no symptoms but may still be contagious. Continue reading →
In 2018 and 2019, there were approximately 5,000 federal lawsuits filed against hotels, restaurants, stores, and other places of public accommodation alleging that their websites violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In all likelihood this number of lawsuits will increase in 2020 now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision against Domino’s Pizza that essentially gave the green light for individuals with visual impairments to file suit against places of public accommodation if their websites are not fully compatible with screen reader software or otherwise not accessible. You can read more about the Supreme Court’s decision here.
Despite the Supreme Court’s recent denial of Domino’s petition for Writ of Certiorari, business owners and operators have at least some room for optimism. Indeed, as we explained in a prior blog post, there were two rulings from the Southern District of New York in the Spring of 2019 that ruled in favor of businesses when: (1) the business had already fixed the website which mooted the case; and (2) the plaintiff had failed to identify any concrete or particularized injuries she suffered, including which sections of the website she tried to access, the date on which she visited the website, and what goods or services she was unable to purchase. Thus, it is comforting to know that at least some defenses are available and can succeed on a motion to dismiss.
Then, in November 2019, another business prevailed on a website accessibility case, this time in a case arising out of the Eastern District of New York. See Castillo v. The John Gore Organization, Inc., Case No. 1:19-cv-00388-ARR-PK (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 14, 2019). This case arose out of a theater’s stated policy on its website Continue reading →
In a blog post from February of this year, we discussed the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, in which a blind man sued Domino’s in 2016 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) after he was unable to order food from the pizza chain’s website using screen reading technology because the website lacked sufficient software compatibility capabilities. Because the ADA guarantees people with a disability “full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services … of any place of public accommodations,” the plaintiff claimed that he had been the victim of unlawful disability discrimination. Domino’s, on the other hand, argued that while the ADA applies to its brick-and-mortar locations, it does not apply to its website because a website is not defined in the ADA as a place of public accommodation.
In its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the ADA protects not just restaurants, hotels, stores, and other physical “brick and mortar” locations, but also the “services of a public accommodation,” notably websites and apps. The Court then found that Domino’s violated Title III of the ADA because its website’s incompatibility with screen reader software impeded access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises. Notably, this decision was the first by any U.S. Court of Appeals Continue reading →