HR Hotline: Must We Accept an Employee's 'Mask Exemption' Card?

Q: One of my employees recently submitted a "Medical Mask Exemption" card, in support of her assertion that she is exempt from any mask requirement.
The card is about the size of a driver's license, and it states that the cardholder does not have to disclose his or her condition, but that wearing a mask poses a risk to them under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also lists the contact information for reporting ADA violations to the U.S. Department of Justice.
As an employer, must I accept this card as proof of a mask exemption?A: No. Unfortunately, these types of bogus "exemption cards" have become more and more common, as mask mandates become more frequent.

The cards themselves vary (and are widely available online), but they all purport to excuse the unnamed cardholder from any mask requirement, based on an unidentified condition.

Employers may enforce mask mandates—and may be required to enforce such mandates, depending on local executive orders—like any other employment policy. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects disabled employees from discrimination, and requires employers to accommodate disabled employees unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship for the employer—in other words, where the accommodation requires significant difficulty or expense.

Exemptions

In the case of an employee requesting an exemption from a mask mandate, the employee would need to submit documentation establishing the existence of a disability and the need for an accommodation. 

This rule applies unless the disability and the need for accommodation are both obvious.

So, for example, an employee with a significantly compromised respiratory system could submit a physician's note, documenting the condition and the need to be exempt from wearing a mask.

In response, the employer should engage in the ADA's "interactive process" with the employee, and discuss accommodation options.

Those could include things like: (1) a modified face covering or shield; (2) job restructuring that would allow the employee to work a safe distance away from others; (3) modified work schedules; (4) physical barriers around the employee or others; (5) remote work; or (6) other ideas suggested by the employee or her physician.

In no case, however, is an "exemption card" sufficient.

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