Protections for disabled workers are expanding

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, workers who are otherwise qualified for a position but who have a disability must be given “reasonable accommodations” that enable them to do the job.

In other words, if a worker has the skills, training and aptitude to do a job, but needs some modifications – such as a flexible schedule, a more handicap-accessible workplace, or minor alterations to job duties – the employer has to allow them, as long as they don’t overly burden the business.

For example, Jane Harris worked as a resale steel buyer for Ford Motor Company. Her job required telephone and computer contact with co-workers, and she received excellent performance reviews. However, she also suffered from a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome, which was so bad that she often couldn’t drive to work or get up from her desk without soiling herself.

Ford had a policy that allowed employees to telecommute up to four days a week, but when Harris asked to be able to telecommute to accommodate her condition, Ford refused, claiming that “teamwork” and her physical presence in the office were essential to her job.

Eventually she sued, and a federal appeals court in Ohio allowed the suit to go forward, saying that she might have a good case because technology has improved and the types of jobs an employee can do while telecommuting have expanded considerably in recent years.

Meanwhile, a chemical engineer in Illinois suffered from ADHD and bipolar disorder. To accommodate her medication schedule, her employer had allowed her to start work at 10 a.m. But after two years, a new supervisor arrived and ordered her to show up at 8:30 a.m. She was eventually fired for violating the new attendance policy.

A federal court allowed her to sue, saying that the 10 a.m. start time was apparently a reasonable accommodation since it had worked well for two years.

And did you know that a worker doesn’t actually have to be disabled to be protected by the Act – as long as the employer thinks the worker is disabled?

For example, a sales consultant in Nevada told his manager that he needed to take medical leave to have knee surgery, and that he would be out for at most a week. But the manager apparently didn’t believe him, and thought the surgery would leave him unable to work for much longer.

The manager fired him, and said he could return later but only if he provided a doctor’s note releasing him to work.

A federal judge allowed the employee to sue. Even though the employee wasn’t actually disabled, his employer believed he had a serious disability, and so he was protected by the law.

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