Hot Disability Issues
A hot issue currently is an employee’s ability to keep their job when they have to take time off due to an illness or disability and the duty of an employer to accommodate them while maintaining a productive workplace. Although the Americans with Disability Act (“Act”) has been in effect for some years, its provisions became muddled and diminished through various court decisions. As a result of the confusion, and what many people considered to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the spirit of the Act, Amendments to that Act (“Amendments”) passed by Congress became effective on January 1, 2009, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) issued final resolutions on how to implement the Amendments in May 2011.
The Amendments greatly broaden the scope of what employers are expected to do in order to accommodate persons who allege they have a disability. Employers may question whether an employee is truly disabled, but the Amendments have broadened what is considered to be a disability, and will apply even if an employee doesn’t allege a disability, but the employer “perceives” there may be a disability because the employee has certain work restrictions or requires leave.
It is important for an employer not to take a firm stance and insist that if the employee can’t work at the same pace as before, or can’t lift the same amount, etc., that they will automatically be terminated. An employer is now required, moreso than in the original Act, to determine if there can be something done to reasonable accommodate the employee. Also, while an employee is out on leave, is not the time to document a case against them regarding poor performance, if the issue has not arisen previously.
The issue of distinguishing between employees who have been injured at work versus those that haven’t may also be narrowing, if this results in some type of inequitable situation. Also, if a union contract permits an employee to take medical leave for an extended period of time, and a non-union employee is denied this leave, it may be difficult for an employer to argue that granting leave to one employee and not another makes it difficult for an employer to conduct its business.
Employers are being encouraged by the EEOC to become more flexible in their leave policies. In recent years policies which have been struck down through lawsuits or through settlements with employers include:
An employee injured on the job must return to work within 12 months;
An employee out on medical leave is required to return to full duty without restrictions;
An employee is penalized for being absent even if they were out on a disability;
An employee is prevented from working a reduced schedule if they have a disability.
The burden is being placed on employers to develop policies which evaluate disabilities, determine whether the job requirements of an employee can be accommodated in some way, and actively notify an employee of their rights to accommodated. Some of these policies conflict with the general requirements that employees must request an accommodation, or an employer’s attempt to establish policies that are clear cut and consistent, giving employees instruction on how to proceed with leave issues. These policies often interact with the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and just because leave time under the FMLA has been exhausted, doesn’t necessarily mean that an employee can be terminated.
In conclusion, employers are being encouraged, and in some cases required, to be more flexible with their leave policies; individual analysis is required for each employee requesting leave; all leave policies should be coordinated so they don’t conflict with each other; and there should be an ongoing dialogue with employees, human resources personnel, unions, etc. regarding leave policies.
An interactive process with open lines of communication is required. Supervisors and managers should be instructed on how to deal with these issues, or who to report them to.
I have represented numerous clients who have been terminated when they should have been accommodated, or who require our Firm to intervene on their behalf in attempting to navigate, and often, even locate, their employers’ leave policies. If it takes a lawyer to get this information, and a lawyer must spend time interpreting the policies because they are vague or confusing or they conflict with each other, than that or those policies are far too confusing for an average employee to understand and need to be clarified.
Faye Riva Cohen, Esquire
Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C.
2047 Locist Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103