Category Archives: Medical

Requiring a “Full Recovery” May Violate Disability Law

Have you ever asked an employee for a doctor’s note confirming that the employee is “fully” recovered from an injury or illness as a condition to returning to work? If so, you may be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

I have often talked employers off the ledge of demanding that an employee present a “full release”. Ever since George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990, it has been risky to assume that an employee must return to “full” duty after surgery, a serious illness or an injury. The employer must try hard to put the disabled employee back to work, but job duties may have to be modified, reassigned or eliminated to reasonably accommodate the worker.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance, “Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act”, released last year, states that an employer is in violation of the ADA “if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions—that is, be 100% healed or recovered—if the employee can perform her job with or without reasonable accommodation unless the employer can show providing the needed accommodations would cause an undue hardship.”

Whole Foods was recently sued for not putting Yolanda Toolie back to work when she returned from a spinal fusion with a 10-pound lifting restriction. She says that Whole Foods made her stay on unpaid leave for almost six months until she was fully cleared by her doctor, instead of finding a way to accommodate her restricted ability. After a second surgery, she alleges that Whole Foods fired her because she wasn’t eligible for Family and Medical Leave (which she would have qualified for if she had been allowed to work after the first surgery without the requirement of a “full recovery”).

If these allegations have any merit, Whole Foods could have avoided this suit if it had gone through the reasonable accommodation process with Toolie, a deli clerk, and found a way to put her back to work despite her lifting restriction. Maybe someone else could have lifted the product boxes while she operated the slicer, for example, or maybe she could have transferred to the Whole Foods bakery, where the heaviest thing she would have lifted was a loaf of gluten-free organic brown rice bread.

Putting an employee on indefinite unpaid leave is the accommodation of last resort, since the employee will not receive a salary while not working. Instead of telling an employee to stay home until he is back to 100%, the following reasonable accommodation process should be followed: Continue reading Requiring a “Full Recovery” May Violate Disability Law

2017 New Year’s Resolutions for Employers

At the beginning of each year, I encourage my business clients to make some New Year’s resolutions to achieve better compliance with the myriad employment laws. Based on what many of my clients are telling me and what the courts and enforcement agencies have on their agendas, here are the employment matters that you could improve in 2017:

  • Immigration compliance: President-Elect Trump has promised strong enforcement of the immigration laws. Many of those enforcement efforts will affect employers, such as mandatory use of the E-Verify system to double-check the legal status of every new hire. Even before that requirement is put in to place, resolve to correctly complete the mandatory new I-9 form for every new hire. The best way to make sure the I-9 is correctly completed: consult the government-published Employer’s Guide to the I-9, particularly the color pictures that show you exactly what a valid permanent resident card, for example, looks like. Also, be prepared that some of your employees may lose their work eligibility under the new administration, including young people (known as the Dreamers) who became eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012.
  • Market rate on salaries: Texas’ unemployment rate was sitting at 4.6% at the end of November 2016. Amarillo’s rate was 3.0%. Economists consider 3% to be full employment, meaning you as an employer maybe finding it difficult to attract and keep the talent that you need. I am always surprised therefore when my clients don’t keep up with the market data on salaries. Resolve in 2016 to tap into the data available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics for your industry and your location to really analyze whether your salaries are sufficient. Employees will also be looking at Salary.com and Payscale.com, so you need to do the same.
  • Improve your PTO offering: I am amazed when I am drafting or revising my client’s employment handbooks how little paid time off many local employers offer. Many don’t give an employee any vacation, sick leave, personal days or other paid time off during the first year and then rarely allow more than five days per year after that. This will not attract top talent or create long-term loyal employees, I promise you. Particularly if you are hiring millennials or need an educated workforce, you need to up your game on PTO. My 22-year-old son was hired in 2015 by a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., right out of college (with a degree in economics and a master’s degree in business analytics) and offered three weeks of PTO that started accruing immediately. After one promotion, employees at his company get four weeks of PTO. I’m not arguing that every job merits that much PTO, but resolve in 2017 to at least consider that two weeks per year should be the minimum to improve your hiring, increase your retention, rejuvenate your employees every year and allow your employees to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. As an employment lawyer, I know that most employee lawsuits arise after the worker leaves your employ. Keeping your staff reasonably happy and loyal by providing better PTO will provide you with other benefits too, but I like it because you will spend less time with me in court and instead we can just have lunch and talk about more pleasant topics.
  • Health Reimbursement Accounts: None of us know what the new administration will create to replace the Affordable Care Act, so I can’t give you much advice yet about your group health insurance offerings. However, employers with less than 50 employees who don’t offer group health insurance should resolve to consider using Health Reimbursement Accounts in 2017 because of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act that sailed through Congress and the President’s signature in December. That act included permission for small employers to now use HRA’s to pay for qualified out-of-pocket medical expenses for their employees and to fund individual health insurance premiums. In other words, employers can use pretax dollars to help employees to purchase their own insurance on the open market while capping the employer’s contribution at a reasonable amount. There are, of course, many restrictions associated with this opportunity, but it is worth consideration by smaller employers in 2017.
  • Good Documentation: Every employment lawyer would like for you to add this to your resolution list each year. Memories fail and managers move on, so written documents are often an employer’s only evidence of the nondiscriminatory reasons that certain employment actions were taken. Understand and resolve that performance reviews, reasons for bonuses and merit increases, violations of policy, attendance problems, changes in job duties and disciplinary actions will be well-documented in 2017. I’ll help with any of kind of documentation, but I highly recommend that you get me involved whenever the documentation is of disability or religious accommodations, FMLA, harassment claims, overtime or other compensation problems, egregious policy violations, demotions, final warnings, layoffs and terminations.
  • Gratitude: Resolve that you will say “thank you” more often to your employees in 2017. Studies have repeatedly shown that this one action can enhance employee engagement and loyalty even more than raises and promotions. Gratitude can also make your workplace so much more enjoyable for all of your employees.

 

Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination

Can an employer in Texas still fire someone for smoking pot? For once, my lawyerly answer does not have to be “maybe”. Yes, you can fire an employee for testing positive for marijuana.

Unlike Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., the Lone Star State still treats the recreational use of marijuana as illegal. It is also illegal to buy, sell, grow or even possess pot in Texas, so going to Colorado to buy it and then bringing it back to Texas is not an option.

If your written substance abuse policy tells your employees that you prohibit “illegal drugs”, then you have the right to enforce that policy regardless of whether the pot is illegal under federal, state or local laws.

Therefore, a Texas employer can still require a drug test of an applicant, a current employee, an employee involved in an accident or when the employer has a reasonable suspicion of drug use. If the test shows that the employee has used marijuana, the employer can discipline or fire the employee for violation of the company substance abuse policy.

But what if the employee claims that he is smoking pot for medicinal reasons? Continue reading Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination

Affordable Care Act is the Law

The United States Supreme Court confirmed today that the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) is the law and is here to stay. In deciding King v. Burwell, the Court for the second time upheld the health care law that was passed by Congress in 2010.

What does King v. Burwell mean for employers? Not much. As an employer, you just have to keep soldiering on to make the ACA work in your business, just as you have been doing for the last several years.

Of course, how big an issue the ACA is to you as an employer depends on the size of your workplace. To apply the ACA, you as the employer have to count your employees and determine how many “full-time equivalents” that you employ. Under the ACA, a full-time employee is one who is employed an average of at least 30 hours per week.

The Affordable Care Act’s mandate, requiring employers to provide health insurance to employees or face a penalty, does not apply to employers with less than the equivalent of 50 full-time employees. This is the small business exemption to the mandate and means that small businesses can choose whether to provide health insurance at all.

If you have between 50 and 99 full-time equivalent employees, you have been getting ready for the Affordable Care Act this year, since 2016 is the year that you are required to provide your full-time employees with affordable health insurance coverage or pay a potentially substantial penalty.  You are probably still working out the kinks in your system of counting hours, determining who is full-time, setting measurement periods. Next year you will be getting employees signed up and answering endless questions from your employees about their coverage.

If you have 100 or more full-time equivalent employees, then 2015 is the first year you have been required to  provide health insurance to your employees or pay a penalty. The penalty is imposed if at least one of your full-time employees receives a subsidy to purchase coverage in the individual Marketplace. So the subsidies that the Supreme Court upheld in King v. Burwell today will determine if you as an employer get penalized.

But at least you have a little margin for error this year if you employ 100 or more people. In 2015, you only have to offer coverage to at least 70 percent of full-time employees, rather than 95 percent which will begin in 2016.

There are other changes on the horizon for you as an employer in dealing with the ACA. Continue reading Affordable Care Act is the Law

Lubbock Business Settles Disability Discrimination Claim

A Lubbock auto dealer was accused of disability discrimination and recently settled the claim for $250,000. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued Benny Boyd Chevrolet-Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, Ltd., d/b/a Benny Boyd Lubbock, and Boyd-Lamesa Management, L.C., for discriminating against the dealership manager with multiple sclerosis. Click here for more information.

The manager was hired before his diagnosis with promises of future ownership in the dealership. He managed the dealership successfully for six months before he revealed his disability, according to the EEOC. He was then faced with comments like, “What’s wrong with you? Are you a cripple?” He was also denied the partnership and quit, claiming he was forced to resign.

I am always concerned when my Texas Panhandle business clients don’t believe that employment lawsuits like this can happen to them. I’m sure this Lubbock dealer felt the same way. But there were there were approximately 10,000 charges of discrimination filed in Texas with the EEOC and the Civil Rights division of the Texas Workforce Commission during fiscal year 2014. Around 27% of those charges claimed disability discrimination. It can and does happen to employers here, and some of the cases, like the one in Lubbock, can be very costly.

What can you do to prevent or at least prevail in such suits?  Continue reading Lubbock Business Settles Disability Discrimination Claim

Accommodating Pregnant Employees

Employers often face the question of how to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees. Many of my male (and some of my female) clients panic when they discover that one of their employees is pregnant. They fear that the pregnant employee won’t be able to do the work, that the employee will have some kind of workplace injury or that the employee won’t return to work after maternity leave.

Most employers walk on eggshells around their pregnant employees, even afraid to ask when the baby is due so that the employer can plan for work to get done while the employee is out on maternity leave. Overall, employers are just scared that they will inadvertently do something that will get them sued for pregnancy discrimination.

Their fear is not unfounded. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the courts are taking a careful look at pregnancy discrimination. They want employers to reasonably accommodate the pregnant employee just as you would a disabled employee. You would do this anyway if the expectant mother had any pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes.

The only change is that now you would be wise to accommodate an employee who is having a normal, healthy pregnancy, if the employee asks for a reasonable accommodation.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court case held that a plaintiff can establish an initial case of pregnancy discrimination by showing that she is pregnant, that she sought some sort of reasonable accommodation for her condition, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others “similar in their ability or inability to work.”

In other words, if you let other employees work light duty jobs from time to time, you need to allow your pregnant employee the same privilege. If you would allow an employee who has severe back problems to skip the duty of lifting heavy boxes, do the same for a pregnant employee is she asks for that accommodation. If standing at a cash register all day is hard on an expectant mother, offer a stool for her to sit on, just as you would an elderly employee.

Don’t be patronizing and assume that a pregnant employee can’t work or needs an accommodation. Allow her the dignity of working without help if she chooses. But if an accommodation is requested, you should engage the employee in a discussion (“the interactive process”) to determine what help she needs. You can decide together if her request is reasonable or if there are other equally effective options. Work willingly with your employee to help her out for a few months and she will most likely be glad to return after her maternity leave to be a very productive employee.

Here are a few other quick tips for dealing with pregnant employees: Continue reading Accommodating Pregnant Employees

Employers Face Obesity Discrimination Issues

In June, the AMA recognized obesity as a disease, instead of just an issue of poor judgment. As an employer, you now have to think about obesity in terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). To be protected under the ADA, an employer must have a physical or mental impairment that affects a major life activity, such as walking or bending, or affects a major bodily function, such as the cardiovascular system. In addition, the ADA protects people who are “regarded as” having a disability, even if they don’t.

With the AMA’s decision as ammunition, you as an employer are now in the crosshairs of many more disability claims because the Centers for Disease Control says 35.9% of American adults over 20 are obese. We don’t know all the ramifications yet, but it is reasonable to assume that the AMA’s label will eventually change your legal obligations.

As an employer, you are going to need address the obesity of your employees in three ways:

  1. You must not discriminate against obese applicants or employees by treating them adversely in hiring, promotions, discharge, compensation, job training, or other terms and conditions of employment. Appearance discrimination hasn’t found much support in the courts before the AMA’s decision, but this could give that kind of claim new life. This means that the overweight applicant who you fear will have absenteeism problems because of health issues cannot be excluded on that basis from hiring consideration. Also, that obese employee who you have consistently passed over for a promotion because you think he is lazy, or the fat assistant who wants to go into sales but you don’t believe she presents a professional image, may have a discrimination claim against you either because he/she is disabled by obesity or is regarded as such. Finally, when you are firing an employee, you’ll need to have well-documented reasons if obesity could be a claim.
  2. You will have to accommodate an obese employee’s reasonable requests for bigger, more comfortable furniture, more doctor’s visits or additional time to perform certain physical functions at work. As with any disability, you will have to handle these requests with discretion and sensitivity. I imagine that public theaters, airplanes and stadiums will also have to address this issue of whether they will have to provide larger seats.
  3. You must prevent harassment based on a person’s disability. That means that fat jokes will have to be tamped down just as you would racial or religious slurs to prevent a hostile work environment.

At a time when some parts of the federal government (HHS, DOL and IRS) are promoting wellness programs under Obamacare and encouraging employers to adopt programs that reward employees who stop smoking, lower their cholesterol or their BMI, the federal discrimination enforcement agency, the EEOC, is going to be scrutinizing wellness programs that may stigmatize obese employees. As an employer, you are going to need to walk a fine line with your wellness incentives. Heck, just having a motivation poster glorifying skinny people climbing to the top of a mountain may imply a negative stereotype of disabled obese employees.

There are no easy answers to this new issue. The AMA’s decision, by itself, doesn’t carry any legal weight. But it could influence the courts and accelerate the EEOC’s efforts to make appearance a protected class. My advice is to avoid becoming the test case on this issue and just use some care and common sense when dealing with obese employees.

 

Health Care Reform for Small Employers

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”), health care reform questions have been raised by many of my employer clients. It is important for small businesses to know if and how the PPACA will affect them.

The PPACA “mandate”, requiring employers to provide health insurance to employees or face a penalty, does not apply to employers with less than 50 full-time employees or the equivalent of 50 full-time employees. This is the small business exemption to the mandate.

To apply this small business exemption, Continue reading Health Care Reform for Small Employers

What is the Maximum Leave an Employee Can Take?

Sears Roebuck & Co. recently settled with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a class-action lawsuit for $6.2 million, the largest monetary award for a single Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) suit in EEOC history.

The accusation against Sears was that the company discriminated against the disabled because it had an inflexible policy that allowed injured employees to take off of work for one year before they were automatically terminated for exhausting all leave. The EEOC said that this apparently neutral policy did not provide injured employees with reasonable accommodations in violation of their ADA rights.

With this suit, the EEOC is signaling an end to maximum leave policies. So if an employee has a serious health condition and uses all of his Family and Medical Leave but still cannot return to work, the employer now has to determine whether it would be a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to miss more work. This is the EEOC position even though the courts have held that regular attendance is an essential function of most jobs and that indefinite, open-ended leave requests are not reasonable.

Texas courts have long held that maximum leave policies, neutrally applied regardless of whether the employee suffered an on-the-job injury, had a heart attack or wants to extend her maternity leave, are valid in Texas. The EEOC is undercutting those holdings in an attempt to impose a different standard (or no standard at all). From the settlement with Sears, the EEOC apparently wants all employers to follow these steps when an employee has been on leave and is unable to return at the prearranged time:

  • The employer must notify the employee 45 days in advance of the date her leave expires.
  • The employer must engage in the interactive process with the absent employee to determine whether part-time work, modified duties or a move to another position  would reasonably accommodate the employee and allow him to return to work.
  • If none of the previous options work, then the employer should consider offering additional leave beyond what the policy calls for.

What this means to even a small employer (15 or more names on the payroll) is that there will be no bright-line cutoff to an employee’s leave. If the EEOC’s position prevails, employers will have to hold all jobs open indefinitely for an employee who must take time off for an injury or illness.

At this point, my only advice is to wait and see how the courts react to the EEOC’s position. The Sears suit was a pretrial settlement, so we don’t know how this unreasonable position of the EEOC will hold up in court.

In Texas, it is still the law that an employer can enforce a neutral leave of absence policy by automatically terminating an employee who has exceeded the maximum leave offered. Just be aware that that law could change at any time if courts begin to side with the EEOC.

Genetic Information Now Protected By Law

In June 2008, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. The law prohibits discrimination based on genetic information about employees and applicants, their dependants, and any relatives out to the fourth-degree, such as great-grandparents. GINA stops employers from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information about an employee or his family members. The law goes into effect for employers beginning in November 2009.

Although many people have questioned why we needed a law when no one recognized that genetic discrimination was a problem, the federal government seemed to think that the law was necessary to allow genetic testing to begin to be used to its full potential in fighting disease. In fact, the law passed with only one “no” vote in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

How do you as an employer need to respond to GINA? Continue reading Genetic Information Now Protected By Law