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Face Coverings and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Toby Graham /

Few people enjoy wearing facemasks at work, but most of us need to wear them anyway. Regardless of how uncomfortable or inconvenient they may be, masks are essential for minimizing the spread of COVID-19.

That said, for a select group of people, masks can do more harm than good. Workers with certain disabilities may experience health problems when wearing face coverings. And if you fail to provide accommodations for these individuals, you would be violating their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between not wanting to wear a mask and not being able to wear a mask. People need a valid, specific reason to not comply with an organization’s face covering policy—an “exemption card” an employee found online doesn’t cut it.

Disabilities and Medical Conditions that May Necessitate Face Covering Accommodations or Exemptions

Here are a few examples of employees who may have an ADA-protected reason to not wear a facemask at work*:

  • People who have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or other medical conditions that cause them to have trouble breathing.
  • People who are unable to put on and take off masks themselves due to physical disabilities or limited mobility.
  • People with extreme anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other disorders or mental conditions that cause them to experience significant fear or distress when wearing a mask. This includes some—but not all—people with autism.

*Note that this list is not exhaustive and for illustrative purposes only. It does not constitute legal guidance. The presence of one or more of these conditions does not automatically exclude an employee from a face covering policy.

For more information, read the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s publication, “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.”

What to Do if an Employee Has a Disability or Medical Condition and Requires an ADA Accommodation

If an employee claims they are unable to comply with your face covering policy, you’ll first need to carefully consider their reasoning and determine if it’s a genuine medical concern rather than a matter of preference.

If the reason is valid and covered under the ADA, you’ll need to work with the employee to determine how you’ll accommodate their needs while continuing to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

This is an interactive process. During the process, you may want to ask the employee to provide a certification from a qualified medical practitioner that states that they’re unable to wear a mask and the reason why, along with a list of possible accommodations.

Very few people are entirely exempt from wearing personal protective equipment of any kind or complying with other COVID-19 prevention procedures. Most likely, you and the employee will be able to figure out a reasonable accommodation—an alternative way they can keep themselves and their co-workers safe and healthy.

Accommodations should be tailored to the needs of the individual and the organization. For instance, maybe the employee can wear a clear face shield that doesn’t hinder their breathing as much but still acts as a barricade against respiratory droplets. Or perhaps the individual can work remotely or in a private room behind a closed door, and only wear a mask when they’re around others.

In any case, be sure to keep all medical and disability information confidential. Inform the employee that their information will remain private and will only be shared on a need-to-know basis.

For more resources and information about COVID-19 safety and compliance in the workplace, check out KPA’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

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