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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.