Employers Must Provide Reasonable Accommodations to Workers with Medical Conditions
Employers have an obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee's medical condition in the workplace. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and various state laws, employers must seek to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals who need to adjust their work schedules or assignments due to certain medical conditions. Although most business owners and H.R. professionals understand the extent of their accountability in this arena, disability discrimination claims still generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year for plaintiffs and the attorneys who litigate their disability-related cases. For employers to effectively prevent and defend themselves against these kinds of lawsuits, it is essential that they engage in an interactive process with their employees and applicants who have medical conditions and take the appropriate steps when evaluating their requests for reasonable accommodations.
What are Reasonable Accommodations?
Per the EEOC, employers must provide "reasonable accommodations" for employees who cannot perform the job's essential functions due to a medical condition. When a worker requests an accommodation to help them perform the duties of their job, is important for employers to collaborate with the worker to find a solution. Together the employee and the employer can discuss the employee’s concerns and then work collectively to identify the accommodation that will be most effective. The purpose of their meeting is to identify the obstacles and determine the parameters of a practical solution that will result in the employee being to perform all the functions necessary to accomplish their tasks. While employers must be careful not to ask an employee or job applicant to reveal details about their health condition, employers are free to engage with the individual to determine how to best assist them. Some examples of some reasonable accommodations are:
· Restructuring the job specifications
· Modifying equipment
· Modifying work policies
· Creating a flexible work schedule
· Working part-time vs. full-time.
· Reassigning the employee to another available position
· Providing readers or interpreters
· Allowing the employee to enlist the support of a service dog.
Note: Employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee with a medical condition unless the alterations would produce an "undue hardship for the employer" Undue hardship means the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense.
What is "Undue Hardship"?
According to the ADA, covered employers must make reasonable accommodations for qualified people with physical or mental limitations. The only time an employer may be exempt from making an accommodation for an employee with a medical condition is if the employer can show that a reasonable accommodation would lead to an undue hardship for the company's operation. "Undue hardship" is defined as an "action requiring significant difficulty or expense" when considering the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer's operation." Although undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis, generally larger employers with greater resources are more likely to be expected to make accommodations that require a more significant effort or greater expense than smaller employers with fewer resources.
When determining the parameters of undue hardship, some of the factors taken into consideration are:
The nature and cost of the accommodation that is required for the employee.
The overall financial resources of the operation involved in providing the accommodation.
The number of employees.
The impact the expenses would have upon the company.
The overall financial resources of the company.
The type of business and the functions of the workforce.
If a particular accommodation is determined to be an undue hardship:
The employer should make an effort to identify an alternative accommodation that will not pose such a significant hardship on the operation.
If the cost of the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation, the individual with the disability should be allowed the opportunity to pay for a portion of the cost.
Many Americans Have Chronic Health Conditions
According to the Harvard Business Review, "In the United States, 60% of adults suffer from at least one chronic medical condition. These are defined as illnesses and conditions like fatigue and chronic pain that last at least 12 months and require ongoing management or restrict an individual's activities. These statistics do not include COVID-19 "long haulers" or the 10% of those who suffered from the virus and still experience lingering symptoms, such as difficulties with memory, thinking, brain fog, fatigue, racing heartbeat, gastrointestinal problems, or chest pain for weeks, months, or longer after contracting the virus." 1.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that "Six in ten Americans live with at least one chronic disease, like heart disease, cancer, stroke, or diabetes. These illnesses and other chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in this country and are also drivers of escalating health care costs." 2 Chronic conditions such as these are also a significant contributor to the costs of health insurance premiums and employee medical claims. Some of the costliest health conditions for U.S. employers include high blood pressure, diabetes, and chest pain, but work stress is also among the leading workplace health problems and a significant occupational health risk, ranking above physical inactivity and obesity.
The Laws That Protect Applicants and Workers from Employment Discrimination
Laws established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prevent employers from discriminating against workers based on medical conditions and other protected characteristics. A "qualified individual" can perform the job's essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation. It is a violation for employers to treat a qualified individual less favorably because he or she has a history of health conditions or is believed to have a limiting health condition.
The ADA protects applicants and employees from employment discrimination based on a
ü Medical condition,
ü Physical disability or a
ü Mental disability.
· The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
Employers who discriminate against employees with medical conditions are violating federal law. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects workers by enforcing federal ADA disability discrimination laws.
Examples of Medical Condition Discrimination
According to federal law, employers cannot discriminate against workers with medical conditions in any aspect of employment. Employers are also required to appraise job applicants' qualifications without considering their medical conditions Examples of illegal practices regarding medical condition discrimination in the workplace include:
· Refusing to provide reasonable accommodation.
Refusing to hire or employ an individual with a medical condition.
Firing, discharging, or terminating an employee due to a medical condition.
Discriminating against an individual with a medical condition regarding compensation or other privileges of employment.
· Declining to engage in a timely, good-faith interactive process with employees who request a reasonable accommodation.
· Refusing to select an employee for a training program.
· Demoting an employee
· Reducing pay
· Denying a promotion
· Denying reinstatement
· Denying benefits.
· Forcing an employee to quit
· Engaging in harassment
· Assigning different duties.
· Discriminating or harassing in any way.
Why Employers Are Concerned About an Employee's Medical Conditions
The CDC reports that "Chronic health conditions and unhealthy behaviors that reduce worker productivity that causes employees to take time away from work cost U.S. employers approximately $36.4 billion annually. On average, full-time American workers spend more than one-third of their day, five days a week, at their workplace. Employers who implement workplace programs to promote the well-being of their workers can protect health, reduce safety risks, and help prevent disease.3
Employer concerns about a job applicant's or employee's medical conditions include how the condition could affect an employee's ability to work and or what the individual's condition could potentially cost the business if reasonable adjustments must be made to accommodate them. Companies understandably would like to know before onboarding a new employee if the new hire has a medical issue that will require the employer's attention. But employers must be mindful of the kinds of questions they ask employees and applicants to ensure they do not overstep their bounds and risk claims regarding discriminatory practices.
According to the EEOC, employees, and job applicants with medical conditions are part of a protected class. Like those of a particular race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), age (40 or older), national origin, or anyone with a disability, job applicants and employees with medical conditions are classified as having a protected characteristic, and employers are barred from discriminating against employees based on their medical requirements. When collaborating with employees with health issues, or interviewing job applicants with medical conditions, employers are obligated to abide by the terms of the EEOC, and need to know what is required of them to avoid discriminatory behaviors and potential legal action.
Recoverable Damages in an Employment Discrimination Lawsuit?
The damages the court can award a plaintiff in an employment discrimination case will depend on the extent of the medical condition discrimination by the defendant, the damages suffered by the plaintiff, and the details of the case. Damages include the financial and emotional losses the plaintiff suffered due to acts of discrimination. A damages award typically puts the plaintiff, the employee, or the job applicant, back into the same place they would have been if they had not suffered from the discriminatory act. In most state and federal discrimination lawsuits, the plaintiff is entitled to receive the following types of damages:
· Back pay with interest
· Front pay
· Higher income from a promotion
· Higher income from a raise
· Lost benefits
· Pension benefits
· Bonus payments
· Pain and suffering
· Emotional distress
Successful lawsuits can also result in equitable remedies. If a job applicant was not selected based on a medical condition, the court could require the employer to hire the applicant and provide the reasonable accommodations necessary for them to perform their job. Individuals who have suffered from employment discrimination based on a medical condition can also seek damages for attorney's fees and court costs. In some cases, employees may also be eligible for punitive damages. Punitive damages punish the wrongdoer for their behavior and deter the employer and other wrongdoers from engaging in similar conduct.
Employers with preconceived ideas about an employee's or job applicant's abilities based on concerns or stereotypes about their medical condition must be aware that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against an individual based on a health-related issue. When employers have employees or job applicants with medical conditions who request an accommodation to help them perform their jobs, the employer is legally obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would result in an undue hardship for the employer. Employment discrimination based on health conditions violates federal law, and employers can avoid discriminatory behaviors in the workplace, and protect themselves from legal action, by understanding the responsibilities and obligations they have to employees and job applicants who are members of this protected class.
If You Have Questions About Employment Discrimination
If you are an employer with questions about employment discrimination, call Natalie S. Lynch at the Lynch Law Firm. Natalie is the managing member of the firm and a credentialed investigator and dispute resolution mediator with many years of experience working with businesses to help minimize employment risk factors. Natalie is the only consulting and credentialed investigator in Central Texas who conducts third-party investigations into allegations of discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, and other labor and employment issues. If you are an employer and have questions about a labor and employment issue or other legal matter associated with your responsibilities as an employer, call the Lynch Law Firm now.
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