Federal guidelines require employees’ health information to be kept confidential. But employers also have an obligation to protect the workplace.
Q: I’m an employee in a New York City co-op building, and a member of the Local 32BJ union. Recently, one of my co-workers was out sick and some residents learned that he had Covid-19. I asked the superintendent how they knew, telling him that this was private information. Then a few weeks later, the same thing happened to me: I returned to work after having been out with Covid, and some tenants asked me about it. One told me that she learned from another employee that I had Covid. But I had only informed the super. I am concerned about why and how this information is spreading. What rights do I have to protect my medical privacy?
A: Your supervisor is walking a fine line when it comes to Covid. Federal guidelines require employees’ health information to be kept confidential. But employers also have an obligation to inform workers (and, in your case, perhaps tenants, too) about their potential exposure to an infectious disease.
“Employers are in a little bit of a difficult spot here,” said Matthew T. Bodie, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, who teaches and writes about labor and employment law. “They’re trying to manage the spread of Covid in their workplace, but they’re also trying to protect employee confidentiality.”
It’s possible your supervisor or the co-op board informed employees and tenants that they may have had a Covid exposure. Would doing so violate your confidentiality? The answer depends on what, exactly, you told your supervisor and what information he passed along. If he identified you directly, he may have violated your confidentiality rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But if you volunteered the information by telling your supervisor unprompted that you had Covid, then your privacy might not be protected based on some court rulings, said Mr. Brodie. (And if your co-workers were the ones who told other people that you had Covid, they would not be violating your rights because they do not supervise you.)
Even if your supervisor kept your name out of the Covid conversation, if you work in a small workplace and you’re the only person out sick, it doesn’t take a huge leap for employees or tenants to figure out who has Covid.
Still, if you feel that your confidentiality was violated, you can contact your union representative or file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission or the New York City Human Rights Commission. But even if your rights have not been violated, you may want to have another conversation with your supervisor, expressing your privacy concerns and requesting that he be as discreet as possible in the future.
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