On May 9, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released new guidance on employer-provided unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Under the ADA, employees with disabilities must be granted “reasonable accommodations” that will allow the employees to complete their duties on the job. According to the EEOC, reasonable accommodations include allowing disabled employees to take a period of unpaid leave for medical treatment or other problems related to the disability.
Unpaid leave does not generally fall under an employer’s usual guidelines. In many cases, disabled employees stick to their employer’s policies for short periods of time away from work. If an employer provides paid time off, sick days, or vacation days, then a disabled employee can use these days for any purpose that a non-disabled employee could.
The employer must treat disabled employees equally to non-disabled employees under the policy. For instance, if a non-disabled employee must provide a doctor’s note to use sick days, it would be permissible to require disabled employees to do the same, however, the employer could not set different rules for different types of employees based on their disability.
Under the new guidance, an employer’s obligation to accommodate a disabled employee does not end there. Employers must also consider whether providing a period of unpaid leave to a disabled employee would count as a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC’s new guidance suggests that unpaid leave is almost always a reasonable accommodation. This is true even if the employer does not regularly offer leave as an employee benefit or if that employee would not be eligible for leave under the employer’s existing policy. Unless the employer can show that the unpaid leave would cause an undue hardship on its operations or finances, most requests for unpaid leave should be seriously considered.
Three days after the EEOC released its new guidance opinion, the agency also announced an $8.6 million settlement from Lowe’s Home Improvement on related claims under the ADA.
According to the EEOC’s consent judgment, Lowe’s had previously maintained a “maximum leave” policy for its employees. Under this policy, workers were only allowed to take up to a certain maximum number of days of medical or family leave before they were automatically terminated.
The EEOC sued Lowe’s over this policy, alleging that the arbitrary maximums failed to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. The EEOC argued that automatic terminations failed to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Rather than continue fighting the case in court, Lowe’s agreed to pay the EEOC a settlement which will be distributed to any of the company’s qualifying former employees.
In a May 13, 2016 news release, the EEOC stated that the settlement “[S]ends a clear message to employers that policies that limit the amount of leave may violate the ADA when they call for the automatic firing of employees with a disability after they reach a rigid, inflexible leave limit.”
The consent judgment and the guidance opinion should help employers understand when employees are allowed to request unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for a disability or illness. Hopefully, both of these opinions will make it easier for disabled employees to take the leave they need to recover or seek treatment without worrying about losing their jobs. If a request for unpaid leave is denied without good reason, employees may be able to file a lawsuit against their employers.
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