Disability accommodation seems to create a lot of confusion among employees. Workers sometimes believe that they can’t lose their job if they become sick or disabled, and it just isn’t that simple.
To be covered by disability law, your employer must have at least five employees. Some laws require more employees to be applicable. Additionally, you must be able to carry out all essential functions of your job with a reasonable accommodation. Perhaps the situation is best illustrated with a series of examples:
- An employee works at a local store, unloading trucks and stocking shelves, lifting and carrying heavy boxes. That employee gets in a car accident and is injured, told by a doctor they can never lift anything over five pounds again. Isn’t the employer obligated to find the employee a job where they don’t have to lift anything? The short answer is likely no.
- An employee works is a waitress for five years. After that time, the employee is diagnosed with diabetes. The condition is manageable with medications and has no effect on the employee’s ability to do their job, but the management is worried that a diabetic employee will call in sick more often, and fires the employee on that basis, telling them to apply for government disability insurance. Is that illegal? Yes. The employee was just as able to the job before the diagnosis as after, and it was the employer’s prejudiced belief that diabetics necessarily call in sick more often that led to the termination. There has been no change in employee performance.
An employee works in a cold storage warehouse filling grocery orders, a job that requires repeated stress on his or her hands. After a few years, the employee develops carpal tunnel syndrome, and requires weeks off for surgery. After the surgery, the employee can only work part time for several weeks, and will always require regular breaks to stretch their hands and rest. If fired, is that illegal? That likely depends on how large the employer is, and how difficult or costly it will be to accommodate the employee in question. In other words, the court will balance the requested accommodation (more frequent breaks) with the ability of the employer to do business. If it will create an “undue hardship”, then the accommodation can be determined to be unreasonable.