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Medical Leaves of Absence: Disabilities and “Reasonable Accommodation”

StethoscopeThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a public meeting in June focused on the use of medical leaves of absence as “reasonable accommodation” for employees’ disabilities.  Two representatives from the EEOC, two advocates for disabled workers, and two panelists representing the business community made up the six member panel.

Clearly, the issue of how to allot medical leave to disabled persons is a sticky issue that sometimes causes anxiety and confusion between employers and employees, and one of the aims of the panel was to clear up ambiguities in application of the law.  Christopher Kuczynski, Assistant Legal Councel for the EEOC, acknowledged this confusion then turned to describing in detail the position the EEOC has taken on theses issues.

Mr. Kuczynski noted the EEOC asserts that in some cases the use of accrued paid leave and additional unpaid leave might be a form of “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Yet, things become sticky when a business applies a uniform “no fault” leave policy that requires automatic termination after a certain period of time.  He noted this does not necessarily represent a violation the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Still, he quoted the EEOC’s official position in literature saying “where an employee needs more leave than is allowed under a ‘no-fault’ leave policy because of a disability, and employer must ‘modify its policy to provide the employee with the additional leave,’ unless there is another effective accommodation or modifying the policy would result in undue hardship.”

John Hendrickson, a Regional EEOC, then described several cases that ended with settlements against major corporations like Sears Roebuck and Jewel Foods.  He used these cases to establish some parameters that businesses and disabled workers should keep in mind:

  • Set periods of leave, even if generous, may not be sufficient to meet the employer’s duty of reasonable accommodation.
  • Appropriate leave under the ADA must be subject to individual analysis–even if the fixed leave policy is expansive.
  • Employers should be weary about separating administration of workers’ compensation benefits or disability benefits from ADA administration.
  • Employers need to keep clear lines of communication open between employees, health care providers, and managers.
  • Ultimately, the EEOC “occupies a unique role in litigating these case.”

Understandably, witnesses for disabled workers described an issue of bigger dimensions and urgency than the business community would acknowledge.  The everyday challenges encountered by disabled workers form ongoing, tangible obstacles to each work shift.  However, with proper adherence to the ADA, workers are better positioned to gainfully contribute to the workplace.

Businesses are becoming increasingly aware and compliant with workers’ needs, most usually through litigation.  In early June, the EEOC alleged that Target Corporation violated the ADA by denying “reasonable accommodation” to a disabled employee and reducing his work hours. According to the complaint, Target reduced the work hours of an employee with cerebral palsy and suffering from seizures to sometimes one-third the time worked by other employees.  Target payed $160,000 in a settlement.  Still, what is optimistic in this case is that Target agreed to designate an ADA coordinator in its corporate-level human resources department and launch a corporate-wite policy regarding “reasonable accommodation.”

If you are a worker who feels they may not be receiving reasonable accommodation as lawfully spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, you need to immediately contact an experienced Washington Workers’ Compensation Attorney to seek advice.  Emery Reddy has an expert Washington Labor & Industries Lawyer standing by to be your advocate and fight for your rights.


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