Know Your Legal Obligations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
In recent years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has annually fielded around 25,000 alleged violations related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And while the majority of these claims are deemed unworthy of action by the EEOC, you don’t want your company to be the exception. The average award in settled cases is roughly $60,000.
Here’s some important background on ADA claims and some recent cases that provide valuable lessons for employers.
ADA Myths and Misconceptions
The EEOC states that certain “myths” about the 30-year-old ADA have skewed the way some employers view its requirements. Perhaps the most basic, yet widely accepted myth is that the ADA forces employers to hire unqualified individuals with disabilities.
What’s the truth? According to the EEOC: “Applicants who are unqualified for a job cannot claim discrimination under the ADA.” In addition, employers aren’t required to give preference to qualified people with disabilities over others who don’t have a disability.
Many people also believe that employers “must give people with disabilities special privileges, known as accommodations.” It’s true that employers covered by the ADA (meaning those having at least 15 employees) are required to make reasonable accommodations. But the misunderstanding is in what’s deemed “reasonable.”
The EEOC defines reasonable modifications as: “Modifications to a job, work environment or the way work is performed that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform the essential functions of the job, and enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace.”
Accommodations often involve no direct cost to an employer, but when there is a cost, it’s typically around $500.
Here are four recent cases brought by the EEOC. Each illustrates a specific category of ADA violations and how the concept of reasonable accommodations looks from a legal enforcement perspective.
1. Preemptive termination I. An employee was hospitalized for several weeks with pancreatitis, acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. Ultimately the person was cleared by a physician to return to work without restrictions. At that point, however, he was deemed by his employer to be a “liability” to the company and was terminated. The reason given was that, due to his health condition, he was at risk of being injured on the job.
Terminating an employee based on “a disability or perceived disability” violates the ADA, the EEOC stated. “Too often employers rely on unfounded assumptions about an employee’s ability to do his job, rather than the results of a medical examination.” The company paid $85,000 to the employee in monetary relief as part of the settlement.
2. Preemptive termination II. The second case also involved the termination of an employee with a serious health condition. In this situation, the employer cited an industry standard as the basis for its decision. The terminated employee was a commercial diver who maintained his job while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy cancer treatment. He took a leave of absence for surgery but was terminated when he sought to return to work. Industry guidelines suggest people who have had cancer within the past five years are, in general, unfit to perform that kind of work.
But, the EEOC noted that those guidelines also call on employers “to make individualized medical assessments,” which this employer failed to do. More importantly, the ADA has a similar requirement, and the law supersedes industry guidelines. “This lawsuit reminds employers that the ADA takes precedence over internal policy or trade association guidelines,” the EEOC commented. The company agreed to pay $125,000 in monetary relief.
3. Failure to accommodate. Here, an employer accepted a $160,000 settlement after backing away from a “reasonable accommodation” arrangement with an employee. The worker developed a serious ailment in both feet and was urged by her physician to stay off her feet as much as possible. Her employer initially agreed to allow her to telecommute. But after a week, the employee was placed on unpaid leave without benefits, and it didn’t appear that she would be allowed to return to her job.
The employer’s decision was “unilateral” and made “despite the fact that she could perform the essential functions of her job from home,” according to the EEOC. “An employer should accommodate an employee who can perform the essential functions of the position with a limited period of telework if it does not impose an undue hardship” on the employer, it added. The outcome of the case was affected by the employer acting without a required “interactive process” to seek a reasonable compromise and the failure to give the telecommuting arrangement a longer trial period.
4. Job offer withdrawn. The ADA protects job applicants as well as employees. This case involves an individual who had been offered a job but had to defer the date of reporting for work due to a sudden pregnancy-related disability. Specifically, the woman developed pre-eclampsia, and, five days prior to her scheduled start date, had to undergo a premature induced labor. She immediately informed the employer by email.
“Within hours, she received a voicemail from [the employer] withdrawing the offer of employment, even though she needed only the minor accommodation of delaying her start date by several weeks,” according to the EEOC. “The law requires that employers engage with applicants and employees to provide reasonable accommodations for disabilities,” commented the EEOC. Although the case hasn’t yet run its course, the EEOC stated that it “underscores that pregnancy-related disabilities are covered by the ADA.”
ADA requirements may appear counterintuitive in some scenarios. So, it’s prudent to seek counsel from an expert in the field prior to making any important employment-related decisions when a disability – short-term or permanent – may be involved.