In human resources departments across the U.S., people are working diligently to comply with federal, state and municipal regulations with regard to recruiting, hiring and employee policies. However, it can be a difficult task keeping up with every law and amendment, ensuring the business is free from legal liability for noncompliance. All the same, ignorance of the law is never a defense for human resources managers and business owners. They need to understand how the various kinds of legislation impact the way they operate on a daily basis, especially laws that pertain to civil rights.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a landmark ruling that has changed the way companies accommodate individuals who have a disability or what other people perceive as a disability. The U.S. Department of Justice explained the disability can either be "a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities."
Under the ADA, there are several titles that provide guidance for employers, government agencies and programs, public transportation and building operators and telecommunications services.
Some of the provisions of the law, such as providing disabled individuals with equal access to employment and benefits, are fairly straightforward. At the same time, an employer can't ask about a job seeker's disability prior to making an employment offer. These concepts fall in line with many of the pillars of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, there can be a gray area when it comes to what qualifies as a major life activity.
Who is most misinterpreted as a covered person?
The ADA doesn't go into the greatest detail about what qualifies as an impairment, which lends to some confusion about what employers should look for. The American Cancer Society listed several of the major life activities. These include:
- Caring for oneself
However, this list isn't exhaustive, and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 has expanded the definition to some extent. Now, many of the primary bodily functions are covered by the ADA, including issues relating to cell growth, as well as the excretory, nervous, respiratory, endocrine, immune and reproductive systems, the CSA wrote. As a result, many individuals who have some form of cancer are protected under the ADA, even when the disease goes into remission.
One of the most important caveats to the law is that the employee must be able to perform their essential job functions in spite of his or her disability. While an employer can't refuse to hire an individual because he or she isn't able to complete ancillary tasks, HR managers are well within their legal rights to pass over an individual who doesn't fulfill fundamental requirements for a position.
What can employers do when they're not sure about a diagnosed condition?
Recently, employers have faced the difficulty of interpreting those dealing with obesity as disabled persons. Becker's Hospital Review highlighted a 2011 case in Texas during which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that morbid obesity was a bona fide disability. Prior to the ADAAA in 2008, the EEOC suggested obesity would rarely qualify as an impairment, but the agency has changed course on the matter specifically when there's a physiological cause for the condition.
The Texas case involved a 600-pound forklift operator who required a seatbelt extension to securely operate the machinery. The employer declined to accommodate the request and terminated his employment because he wasn't able to perform his essential job function. The company had an opportunity to provide reasonable accommodation but decided to face litigation and lost the argument.
In this case – and others like it – it's advisable for an employer to seek out the guidance of the disabled employee's medical professional. Especially with the case of a morbidly obese worker, it's important for a company to understand the underlying physiological causes of the condition before assessing their options for recourse.
What happens when an employer can't provide reasonable accommodation?
There are a few reasons why a business doesn't necessarily have to honor the request for accommodation. Organizations with fewer than 15 employees aren't required to follow ADA regulations relating to employment, the Department of Labor explained.
At the same time, when a request would cause undue hardship, the employer doesn't have to honor it. The enterprise would have to prove that, due to its size or organizational structure, the expense of accommodating a disabled worker would substantially hinder its operations.
Therefore, should an employer move to fire? What are the alternatives? One of the common misconceptions about reasonable accommodation is that it is overly expensive. The DOL indicated the majority, or two-thirds, of requests require less than $500 on the part of the employer to address the situation.
Otherwise, the responsibility resides with the employer to judge whether it's more reasonable to fire the current worker and recruit another employee in the event that the company can't accommodate a disabled staff member.