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Health Privacy Protections In The Age Of COVID-19

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Normally, an employer can’t ask probing questions about your health. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, they can ask more detailed questions about symptoms, body temperature, and general wellness. But employers still can't share this information with staff.";

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how we socialize and how we work. For some people, particularly essential workers, this has made it difficult to navigate an evolving workplace with employee protections in the limelight.

>>Latest WUWM & NPR Coronavirus Coverage

Employers now have more leeway in the questions they can ask their employees, which raises concerns about accountability and potential discrimination.

"In a pandemic, there’s a provision within the American’s With Disabilities Act that loosens a little bit the restrictions that would otherwise apply of what employers can and can’t do in terms of questioning about health or taking your temperature," says Barbara Zabawa. She's an expert in health and wellness law, and the co-director of the master's in health administration program at UW-Milwaukee's College of Health Sciences. 

In normal circumstances, for example, an employer wouldn't be able to ask probing questions about your health. In light of the pandemic, they can ask more detailed questions about symptoms, body temperature, and general wellness measures. Still, although they can ask these questions, they can't share this information with other employees.

"One of the things the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] is, just because you can find out information that in other times you wouldn't be able to find out, you still have the obligation to keep that information confidential. So, if you know someone, an employee, has the virus, you're not allowed to disclose who that is," Zabawa explains.

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.