Category Archives: ADA Accommodations

EEOC Issues Updated Guidance Addressing COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives Among Other Issues

Contributed By Steven Jados, May 28, 2021

Medicine doctor and vaccine dose

On May 28, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance regarding employers offering incentives for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The updated guidance also clarifies issues related to whether employers can mandate that employees be vaccinated before entering the workplace.

Interestingly, the EEOC’s guidance on vaccine incentives is broken into two parts: (1) incentives for employees voluntarily providing proof that they received a vaccination on their own, and (2) incentives for employees who voluntarily receive a vaccination administered by the employer or its agent.

As to the first scenario, the EEOC’s guidance says little more than that requesting proof of vaccination is not a disability-related inquiry covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and also does not seek information protected by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and therefore employers may offer incentives to employees who provide proof that they were vaccinated. 

The guidance for the second scenario is a bit more detailed. It states that incentives may be offered, so long as the incentive (whether it is a reward or penalty) “is not so substantial as to be coercive.” The difference between the first and second scenarios is that in the second scenario, employees will likely be required to disclose protected medical information as part of the vaccine provider’s pre-vaccination inquiry. An incentive that is too large could make employees feel pressured to disclose that protected medical information, and that undue pressure may violate the ADA.

The EEOC’s guidance is that the incentive limitation in the second scenario does not apply to the first scenario—because the first scenario is just asking for proof of vaccination status, which is not a disability-related inquiry in the EEOC’s eyes. However, we recommend caution in providing large incentives in first scenario circumstances, too, given the recency of this EEOC guidance, and the thorny issues and litigation risks that can arise with respect to incentive programs that touch on employee health and medical information.

On the subject of mandatory vaccines, the EEOC’s updated guidance makes clear that “federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19,” subject to reasonable accommodation and other EEO considerations. The guidance includes expanded advice for responding to employees who do not want to be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons or because of pregnancy. (A word of caution: federal EEO laws are not the only game in town, and there is a possibility that other laws could prohibit employers from imposing mandatory vaccine policies—so be careful.)

The EEOC’s next piece of guidance should not come as a surprise to our loyal readers: employees’ COVID-19 vaccination documentation is confidential and must be kept separate from employee personnel files, like other medical information.

The EEOC’s updated guidance also includes several links to resources available for employers to educate their employees about COVID-19 vaccinations and related issues.

As discussed above, issues relating to vaccine incentives—and really any issue relating to COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace—can get thorny very quickly. With that in mind, we recommend engaging experienced employment counsel before wading too deep into these issues.

Happy Memorial Day! A Quick Guide for Affirmative Action Programs for Hiring Veterans with Disabilities

Contributed By Allison P. Sues, May 26, 2021

With the upcoming Memorial Day holiday offering an opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifice made by military families, it seemed a fitting time to revisit the legal nuances of providing preference in hiring veterans with disabilities. Veterans report high instances of service-connected disabilities, including blindness, deafness, missing limbs, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some laws require employers to provide preference to disabled veterans. Some employers voluntarily create affirmative action programs for veterans with disabilities. Here is what employers should know. 

Can an employer give preference in hiring to a veteran with a disability?

Yes. There is no law that prevents an employer from voluntarily creating a program that gives preference in hiring to qualified veterans with disabilities. Moreover, there are various laws in place that may require an employer to provide affirmative action to veterans. For example, the Vietnam Era Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) requires all business with a federal contract or subcontract exceeding $100,000 to take efforts to employ and advance veterans with disabilities. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) requires employers to make reasonable efforts and accommodations to return veterans with service-connected disabilities to their position prior to military service or to help qualify the veteran for a job of equivalent seniority, status, and pay. 

May an employer ask if an applicant is a disabled veteran? 

Yes. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally prohibits employers from making medical inquiries, they may do so for affirmative action purposes. Therefore, an employer may ask applicants to voluntarily self-identify as a veteran with a disability if it is collecting this information to undertake affirmative action required by a veterans’ preference law, or to provide benefits to these applicants through the employers’ own voluntary program.   

If an employer requests that applicants self-identify as a veteran with a disability, the request must clearly state that this information is intended for use solely in connection with its legal affirmative action obligations, or voluntary affirmative action efforts. Employers should also confirm with the applicants that the information will be kept confidential, and that the applicant’s decision to disclose this information is completely voluntary. Keep all records of disability-related information in a separate, confidential file.

What are some steps that employers can take to attract, recruit, and hire veterans with disabilities?

  • Job postings and advertisements may encourage veterans with disabilities to apply and should explicitly state that the organization is an equal opportunity employer.
  • Employers may send job opening information to organizations that job-train veterans and assist veterans with finding employment.
  • Employers may attend job fairs that connect employers with qualified veterans searching for work.
  • Employers should review all language used in job postings to make sure that nothing would dissuade a veteran with a disability from applying. Job postings should not include language calling for “excellent health” or listing required physical abilities if an individual with a disability would be able to accomplish the job function differently through an accommodation.
  • Employers must provide accommodations to veterans with disabilities in the application process where necessary. For example, employers should provide applications and other written materials in an accessible format, whether that be in large print, Braille, or electronically. Employers should also conduct interviews in accessible locations. 

UPDATED: I Don’t Want to Wear a Mask…Part 4: OSHA Weighs In!

Contributed By Michael Wong, May 17, 2021

Blue medical face masks isolated on white

***On May 17, 2021, OSHA updated its web page regarding “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” to state the following:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance relating to recommended precautions for people who are fully vaccinated, which is applicable to activities outside of healthcare and a few other environments. OSHA is reviewing the recent CDC guidance and will update our materials on this website accordingly. Until those updates are complete, please refer to the CDC guidance for information on measures appropriate to protect fully vaccinated workers.”

The CDC’s May 13, 2021 guidance “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People” states that fully vaccinated people can “Resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, EXCEPT where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. Fully vaccinated people should also continue to wear a well-fitted mask in correctional facilities and homeless shelters. Prevention measures are still recommended for unvaccinated people.”

However, the CDC has not made any changes to its workplace guidance regarding the use of masks. In particular, the CDC still advises employers to “encourage employees to wear face coverings in the workplace, if appropriate”, and does not differentiate between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not. 

Finally, even though the CDC and OSHA have issued this guidance, a patchwork of state and local policies or rules are popping up making it clear that an “across the board” mask-free workplace is not without legal risk for employers.

What does this mean for the workplace?

OSHA’s updated reference to the CDC’s guidance has essentially made this issue a little more clear. In doing so though, OSHA and the CDC has opened the door to employers and businesses allowing employees to be in the workplace without a mask, if they are fully vaccinated, but has not provided any guidance or direction on how to do so. The risk of OSHA issuing a fine or penalty on this issue has been reduced as long as the company is taking common sense steps to protect its employees, which could include (i) requiring verification or confirmation by employees that they have been fully vaccinated before allowing them to be mask free in the workplace; and (ii) modifying guidance to allow employees who have been vaccinated to not wear a mask in the workplace, unless interacting with or in a part of the business where there are customers, clients or the public.

In considering revised policies, employers should remember that there is still risk from workers’ compensation claims. While being vaccinated reduces the possibility of getting COVID-19, if an employee is not wearing a mask in the workplace and gets COVID-19, the employer could still face a workers’ compensation claim that the employee got COVID-19 at work. 

With respect to customers or clients coming into the business, the issue is even muddier, as the CDC and OSHA guidelines are unclear on what is expected of businesses and employers at this point. For example, if a business allows customers or clients into the business without a mask, do they have to verify that they have been vaccinated? Moreover, there is no guidance on what questions a business could ask a customer or client to confirm if he or she has been vaccinated. 

As such, this still means that training, education and communicating with employees and customers will be vital within the next few weeks and months. Many employees and customers will hear about the federal “unmasking,” but will not understand that it does not apply to employers or businesses based on state or local requirements or guidelines.

Training for employees should include methods on addressing, managing and de-escalating conflicts with customers and between employees. In particular, re-emphasizing and educating employees on how to communicate the business’ policies and more importantly the reason why the business’ policies may not have changed.

Finally, don’t forget that employer and business obligations regarding reasonable accommodation of disabilities and religious beliefs under the ADA and Title VII are still in place.

Due to the complexity and interplay of federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including CDC, OSHA and state and local health departments and governments, it is important to use legal counsel experienced and knowledgeable in labor and employment law to help you navigate these waters.

For further information on this matter, keep an eye out for our timely webcast, “Mask Mandate Mayhem! A Briefing for Confused Employers” on Monday, May 24th at Noon CT.  

I Don’t Want to Wear a Mask…Part 3: Land of the Mask Free and Home of the Brave

Contributed By Michael Wong, May 14, 2021

Blue medical face masks isolated on white

On May 13, 2021, the CDC issued new guidance stating that those who are fully vaccinated can resume activities without wearing a mask or social distancing. Following the CDC’s announcement, President Biden lifted the mask mandate that was required by staff and visitors of the White House.  

While the CDC has issued this guidance, a patchwork of state and local policies or rules are popping up making clear that we are not going to be mask free quite yet. More importantly, the CDC’s announcement contained a big “EXCEPTION” by stating “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local businesses and workplace guidance.”

To be clear, the CDC has not made any changes to its workplace guidance regarding the use of masks. The CDC guidance still advises employers to “encourage employees to wear face coverings in the workplace, if appropriate.” More importantly though for employers, OSHA still states that employers and businesses should require the use of face masks and emphasizes that “employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious harm. In fact, President Biden’s “lifting of the mask mandate” for staff and visitors could potentially be considered a violation of CDC and OSHA guidance regarding workplaces.

Employer and business compliance with CDC and OSHA Guidelines is still very important, especially with the potential for fines. Recently, OSHA issued a $136,532 penalty and citation to a Massachusetts company for prohibiting employees and customers from wearing face coverings in the workplace and requiring employees to work within six feet of each other and customers for multiple hours while not wearing face coverings, finding that the company’s actions put its employees safety at risk of recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

The issue gets even more complicated at the state and local level. Some states, including New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maine, have advised that they will not be modifying their mask mandates at this time. Many other states, including Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and California have begun adjusting their mask mandates and guidance (including setting dates for them to tentatively end).  While other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, and Texas, have already rescinded their statewide mask mandates. To make things even more confusing, even in the states that have rescinded the state wide mask mandates, some local governments have maintained mask mandates including those for employees and/or customers. Then to make it even more unclear, Indiana just passed a law stating that the decision regarding masks is now controlled by city councils and mayors/elected officials and not local health officers. At least one county in Indiana, Marion County, which covers Indianapolis and its surrounding suburbs, has already had its City Council vote to continue its mask mandate.

What does this mean For Businesses?
This means that businesses must still require employees to wear masks in the workplace and must still require customers coming into the business to wear masks unless otherwise allowed by state or local guidelines, and even then you are still required to comply with OSHA requirements.

This also means that training, education and communicating with employees and customers will be vital within the next few weeks and months. Many employees and customers will hear about the federal “unmasking,” but will not understand that it does not apply to employers or businesses based on state or local requirements or guidelines. Moreover, as OSHA has now made clear by fining businesses, there are repercussions for employers and businesses violating the face mask requirements and guidance. 

Training for employees should include methods on addressing, managing and de-escalating conflicts with customers and between employees. In particular, re-emphasizing and educating employees on how to communicate the business’ policies and more importantly the reason why the business’ policies have not changed. This is vitally important to avoid “viral videos” of confrontations as businesses will no longer be able to point to a presidential mandate or executive order to validate mask policies. Rather, businesses will have to educate employees and customers on federal, state and local requirements and guidelines for businesses and make clear that the “mask free” announcement for those with vaccinations are limited to public and social activities and not so much the workplace, business interactions and shopping. 

Finally, don’t forget that employer and business obligations regarding reasonable accommodation of disabilities and religious beliefs under the ADA and Title VII are still in place. 

Due to the complexity and interplay of federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including CDC, OSHA and state and local health departments and governments, it is important to use legal counsel experienced and knowledgeable in labor and employment law to help you navigate these waters.

Can I Ask My Employees If They Have Been Vaccinated?

Male doctor hand wears medical glove holding syringe and vial bottle with COVID-19 vaccine

Contributed by Heather A. Bailey, April 6, 2021

The short answer is: Be careful what you wish for!  During this COVID-19 pandemic, vaccinations have been at the front of everyone’s mind. Now, with the mass rollout of vaccinations across the country, employers’ main questions have been: i) Can we mandate vaccinations for our workforce or, alternatively, ii) can we ask employees whether they have been vaccinated or not (and to show proof of vaccination)? Our Labor & Employment blog has been at the forefront for the first question and provides more information on COVID-19 vaccination developments and what legal risks come into play for employers when mandating the vaccine in the workplace.

Whether you’ve chosen to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or not, you still may be interested in asking your employees to show proof of their vaccination status.  This simple question comes with its own set of risks. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has given additional guidance in this area in Section K.3 of “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.”   

The good news is that generally asking your employees for proof of their vaccination status is not considered a medical exam for reasons that include the fact that there are many reasons that are not disability-related that may explain why an employee may or may not have gotten a vaccination.  For example, they may not have one yet because they have been unable to secure an appointment, or they simply do not believe in the vaccination because they think COVID is a hoax.  This is different from someone not getting vaccinated due to a disability or religious belief.  Moreover, this general practice is not a HIPAA violation and HIPAA does not apply in this context.  The rub and risk come if you ask follow-up questions that may elicit whether the employee may have a disability.  Simply following-up with “why do you not have the vaccination yet?” could be treading into that risky territory that touches on whether an employee’s disability is the reason why the employee has not been vaccinated. 

If you find yourself in that territory,  you will have to evaluate the employee’s response within the framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (or Title VII, if the employee’s response implicates religious beliefs) requirement to justify proof of vaccination being “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  This is the same analysis an employer must undertake when mandating vaccinations, and it can be a tedious and high standard to meet. View the Labor and Employment Blog for more information on the ADA and employers’ efforts to require mandatory vaccinations and health screenings for employees.

The same is true of follow-up questions that may elicit genetic information (e.g., I cannot get the vaccination due to my family’s history of being immuno-compromised).  (See Sections K.8 and K.9 of the EEOC guidance described above).  Once again, simply asking for vaccination proof does not run afoul of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) so long as you stop there in your inquiries.

Practice Tips:

  • Again, be careful what you wish for.  It’s one thing to ask the employee whether they were vaccinated and to show proof, and it’s another to ask why they were not vaccinated. Once you start eliciting disability, religious or genetic information with follow-up questions, you are placing your company at risk of knowing more information than you may have bargained for.
  • You need to ask yourself, first, why do I want to know information regarding why my employees have been vaccinated or not?  What are you going to do with this information?  Having a need and plan for this information will help ensure you have a business justification for why this information is necessary. If you don’t have a plan or a need, you may determine that knowing this information is not really necessary after all.
  • When asking employees to show proof of vaccination, it is good to remind them that you do not want them to include any other medical information that may be listed on their vaccination-related documents.
  • If you determine this is the route you want to take, always work with competent labor & employment counsel to help guide you through the process so you do not step on any landmines (even if it’s just a simple follow-up question). 

ADA Implications: I Don’t Want to Wear a Mask….

Contributed by Michael Wong, May 8, 2020

Blue medical face masks isolated on white background

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen multiple shifts in views by the public and employees.  Initially, the issue was what to do if an employee requested a face mask. 

However, businesses are now facing different questions:

  1. Can you require employees to wear a face mask? 
  2. Can you require customers or members of the public to wear a face mask when coming into your business?

What most do not realize is that both of these questions raise potential ADA issues.

EMPLOYEESThe short answer is, YES.  A business can require its employees to wear a face mask or covering and other personal protective equipment (PPE) as a workplace rule. In order to do so, the business would want to be able to show a legitimate business reason as to why the rule is in place. Under the current circumstances, requiring the use of a mask and PPE to address safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic would likely be considered a legitimate business reason. In fact, some employers are being ordered to make it a requirement pursuant to local or state mandates.

However, what if an employee reports that he or she has a medical condition that makes it so he or she cannot wear a face mask or covering? This would then trigger the business’ obligation to engage in the ADA interactive process.

In going through the interactive process, the business may send the employee home pending completion of the interactive process. As part of the interactive process, the employer may request additional information and medical documentation from the employee regarding his or her medical condition and restriction of being unable to wear a face mask or covering.  

After receiving the additional information and medical documentation from the employee, the business would have to evaluate whether the employee requires a reasonable accommodation, and if so, what reasonable accommodation works best for the business. For example, if the employee provides a legitimate medical reason for not being able to wear a face mask or covering, reasonable accommodations could include the following:

  • Providing the employee an unpaid leave of absence until face masks or covering are no longer required at work;
  • Allowing the employee to work remotely; or
  • Providing an alternative face mask or covering that is allowed by the employee’s medical condition.

In cases that have addressed a business’ requirement that an employee wear PPE and an employee’s objection based on a disability, courts have ruled it is not an ADA violation for an employer to require an employee to wear PPE to address a safety hazard as part of an essential function of the job/position, where the business is addressing a safety concern.

It should be noted that any unpaid leave of absence based upon the employee’s inability to wear the face mask would likely not be covered by the FFCRA and so the employee likely would not be eligible for Paid Sick Leave or Emergency Paid FMLA leave. However, that is something that should be reviewed carefully, as they may qualify under certain circumstances.

CUSTOMERS/PUBLIC – Many states have issued executive orders requiring the public and businesses to require the use of face masks. However, almost all have an exception for individuals under certain ages and when a medical condition impacts the individual’s ability to wear a mask. For example, Illinois’ executive order states that “an individual who is over age two and able to medically tolerate a face-covering (a mask or cloth face-covering)” must wear a face covering when in public indoor spaces, such as stores.

So what can a business do if a customer says that he or she cannot wear a face mask and, possibly go so far as to allege that requiring one is a violation of the ADA for the business to refuse to allow him/her in? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that this implicates the ADA. Unlike with employees, businesses are very limited in what questions and/or documentation they can ask the customer to provide regarding a disability under the ADA. For example, when dealing with a customer who brings a dog into a business, under the ADA a business is limited to asking two questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?; and
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Businesses are not allowed to inquire as to the nature of the person’s disability, request documentation of the dog being a service animal, or require that the dog demonstrate its task.

With regard to masks, generally the ADA prohibits places of public accommodation having restrictions that would limit access to an individual with a disability. However, the ADA does allow restrictions when an individual would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

As of March 2020, the EEOC has declared that the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard, based on guidance from the CDC and public health authorities regarding the risk of community spread and institution of restrictions. IMPORTANT – This standard may change and so businesses must stay up-to-date.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic is currently considered a direct threat by the EEOC, a business would likely be on solid ground to require customers to wear face masks or covering when entering into their premises. That said, a business would not have the absolute right to refuse to provide a customer service based upon the customer’s refusal to wear a mask.  When faced with a customer who is refusing to wear a face mask or covering, businesses should likely limit any questions to the following:

  • Are you unable to wear a mask because of a disability?

If the answer is “Yes,” then instead of additional questions regarding the disability or demanding documentation, the business should consider moving to engaging the customer in an interactive process to determine possible alternative methods of service that would allow the business to keep its employees and other customers safe, while still providing service/goods to the customer.

In order to address these issues, we recommend providing information, action plans and training to managers, supervisors and employees on how to address these situations and avoid heated confrontations and/or potential litigation. Of course, involving legal counsel in reviewing or putting together your training, documents and action plans will further help limit potential legal problems and costly litigation down the road.

Register Today! Reasonable Accommodations: Employer Obligations under the ADA and Beyond — Complimentary Webinar

Join Suzanne Newcomb at noon ET on June 19 for an in-depth look at workplace accommodations, specifically legal obligations, best practices, and emerging trends.

Workplace accommodations take many forms. Most often, accommodations are thought of as modifications which allow individuals with disabilities to perform essential functions of positions for which they are otherwise qualified.

While certainly the most common, workplace accommodations are not limited to an employer’s obligations under the ADA. Accommodations can also allow employees to practice their religious beliefs, allow pregnant employees to continue working until they give birth, allow new mothers to return to work and breastfeed their newborns, and assist transgender employees to navigate workplace obstacles.

During this webinar attendees will learn:

  1. How to determine whether an individual is entitled to ADA protection
  2. How to distinguish between “reasonable” accommodations and those that impose “undue hardship”
  3. How to properly document the ADA-mandated “interactive process”

Ten Steps to Comply with the ADA’s Interactive Process

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, March 20, 2019

book with title the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Many employers would appreciate a clear road map when traveling the often winding roads of reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  However, there are no rigid routes for the interactive process.  After an employee requests an accommodation, the employer must engage in a good faith and flexible dialogue that addresses the employee’s specific medical limitation, request, job position, and work environment, among other factors.  That said, employers can find guidance in at least ten hard and fast rules on the reasonable accommodation process:

  1. An employer’s statutory duty to provide reasonable accommodations may begin before the employment relationship even forms. If an applicant requests reasonable accommodations to enable participation in the hiring or interview process, an employer must provide an accommodation unless doing so poses an undue hardship.
  2. Generally, an employer’s duty to engage in the interactive process is triggered whenever it learns that an employee needs an accommodation. Courts give employees wide latitude in how they make this known. The employee need not make the request in writing, identify a specific accommodation, or use specific terms such as “disability,” “ADA,” or “reasonable accommodation.”
  3. To start the interactive process, the employer should gather information from the employee, including the specific nature of the limitation, the specific difficulty or issue that the employee is experiencing at work, and what sort of accommodation the employee is seeking.
  4. An employer may require that the employee provide documentation from the medical provider most familiar with the employee’s disability in order to confirm the employee’s specific limitations and need for accommodation.
  5. Once the employer receives this medical documentation, it should ensure that any subsequent requests for updated records are reasonable and do not create an undue burden on the employee. For example, rather than requesting updates on a weekly basis, an employer may seek updated medical information at a time that coincides with an employee’s next scheduled appointment if the doctor’s assessment may change at that time.
  6. Employers should keep all information collected from employees about their disabilities and need for accommodations confidential. All medical documents should be maintained in a standalone file separate from the employee’s personnel file.
  7. The employer should also be collecting information on its end as it reviews the information submitted by the employee. For example, the employer should be reviewing the essential functions of the employee’s position and the employee’s ability to perform those functions, and determining which reasonable accommodations, if any, would enable the employee to perform his or her job. An employer need not provide an immediate response to an employee’s request for accommodation, but it must address the request promptly and keep the employee informed of any updates in the process to ensure there is open communication. Document all communication throughout the interactive process.
  8. The goal of the interactive process should be to allow the employee to perform his or her existing job through a reasonable accommodation. However, even if this outcome is unfeasible, the interactive process is not over. Employers should then consider if they can accommodate the employee through reassignment to a different vacant position for which the employee is qualified or through a temporary leave of absence.
  9. An employee is entitled to a reasonable and effective accommodation – not necessarily the accommodation of his or her choice.
  10. If an employer is able to reasonably accommodate an employee, it is advisable to keep the interactive process open even after the accommodation is implemented. The employer should reach out to the employee to ensure that the accommodation was provided as discussed and that it is indeed effective in enabling the employee to perform his or her job.

Is Obesity A Disability Under the ADA?

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb, March 15, 2019

Page with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) on the table with stethoscope

As with so many ADA questions, “it depends.” However, a pair of cases pending before the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) could provide further guidance.

The 7th circuit has not definitively ruled on whether obesity alone is a “disability.” Federal appellate courts for the 2nd, 6th, and 8th circuits (covering NY, CT, and VT; KY, MI, OH, and TN; and AR, IA, MN, MO, ND, NE, and SD respectively) have all concluded obesity is not a disability unless it is linked to some other disabling condition. In the first of two pending appeals, the trial court reached the same conclusion, ruling that “severe obesity” alone is not a disability under the ADA. (Note, Michigan state law prohibits discrimination based on body weight and a handful of municipalities have passed similar measures.)

But, employers should proceed with caution. Obese employees have defeated motions for summary judgment by arguing their employers regarded them as disabled, and any adverse action taken on the basis of that perception violated the ADA. This is precisely what happened in the second case pending before the 7th circuit.

The plaintiff, who weighed 331 pounds and had a BMI of 47.5, was excluded from his position based on a policy forbidding anyone with a BMI over 40 from working in a safety sensitive role – a policy the employer argued was necessary because those with a BMI over 40 have a substantially higher risk of developing medical conditions which can cause sudden incapacitation or impairment.

The court denied summary judgment concluding it was unlawful to act on the belief that potential future disabilities pose a present safety risk. 

Best practices:

  • Remember the ADA’s statutory definition of “disability” includes those who have an impairment that substantially limits major life activities and those who are “regarded as having such an impairment.”
  • Ensure that all job qualifications – including those designed to ensure safety – are necessary and narrowly tailored to the requirements of the particular job at issue. 
  • Focus on the duties of the position. Can the applicant or employee perform the essential functions of the job safely? If not, could he with a reasonable accommodation? If the accommodation at issue is not particularly onerous, it may make sense to provide it despite uncertainty about whether the individual truly has a disability. An individual who cannot perform the essential functions of a position with or without reasonable accommodation is not a “qualified individual” and cannot sustain an action under the ADA. 
  • When in doubt, treat the individual, at least preliminarily, as if he has a disability. Don’t assume there are no medical conditions beyond excess body weight. Engage in an interactive process to determine whether the individual has a disability, and don’t take a final adverse action until the individual has had an opportunity to provide relevant facts, including evidence of a disability.

Helpful Guidance in Determining a Position’s Essential Functions under the ADA

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, October 19, 2018

16306823 - 3d illustration of scales of justice and gavel on orange background

Illustration of scales of justice and gavel on orange background

A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois sheds light on how to determine what job tasks are properly considered essential functions of a position under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A plaintiff alleging that her employer denied her a reasonable accommodation for her disability must prove that she is a qualified individual, which requires showing that she can perform all the essential functions of the job with or without an accommodation. In the recent decision, the court dismissed a police officer’s failure to accommodate claim because the police officer could not perform certain functions deemed essential to her position. Specifically, she could not ambulate independently or handle a firearm. The police officer claimed these duties were not essential because she was on limited duty indefinitely and spent most of her days working at a desk.

The court delved into federal regulations and case law to determine whether a particular job duty should be deemed essential. Written job descriptions and other indications of an employer’s judgment about a position’s essential functions provide convincing – but not controlling – evidence. Courts will also consider other evidence regarding whether a task is essential, including the amount of time the employee typically spends on the function, the consequence of not requiring the employee to perform the function, terms of any collective bargaining agreement, and the work experience of prior employees or other current employees in that same position. Courts may also make additional inquiries, more likely determining that a function is essential if any of the following are true: (i) the position exists to perform the function, (ii) there are a limited number of employees among whom the function can be distributed; (iii) the function is highly specialized and/or the employee was employed specifically for her expertise or ability to perform that function.

The court also provided helpful analysis in determining essential functions where an employee is responsible for multiple tasks on a rotating basis. A court will likely find that each of the multiple duties are essential functions, even where the employee completes some of the duties only rarely, if the employer can justify why it requires each employee in that position to be able to complete all duties. An employer may satisfy this burden by showing, for example, that the workforce is too small to justify hiring specialists for each separate task or that there are unexpected surges in demand for a particular task.

The court found that even here where the plaintiff did not generally handle a firearm in her limited duty position, the police force could require all officers to be able to handle a firearm regardless of their day-to-day duties because being able to arrest someone is a central purpose of the police force.

Employers should analyze each position in the workforce to understand the position’s essential duties before an issue arises. Being able to differentiate between essential functions and marginal functions will assist an employer in determining its obligations when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation. While an employer may be required to excuse an employee from completing marginal functions, the ADA does not require it to excuse an employee from performing essential functions.  However, it may need to provide accommodations to enable the employee to perform those essential functions.