Avoiding Handicap Law Violations Requires Caution in a Variety of Circumstances

All employers know, or certainly should know by now, that they have a duty to reasonably accommodate workers with disabilities. Still, cases in this area of law abound at the MCAD, EEOC and in the courts. While they often revolve around real disagreements concerning the nature of an employee’s workplace limitations or an employer’s ability to accommodate them, too many arise simply because employers do not act with caution when they discipline or fire workers who are or may be handicapped.

Under Massachusetts law and perhaps even at the federal level in the wake of recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers are entitled to handicap protection more often than one may think. In general, anti-discrimination laws provide that, if an employee suffers from a handicap — defined as a substantial limit on a major life activity such as walking, sleeping, eating, working and the like — he/she must be reasonably accommodated on the job. Accommodations can take many forms, from leaves of absence to adjustments to work stations or even changes in how a manager interacts with a disabled worker. Once an employer knows a worker needs an accommodation, it must engage in an interactive process to determine whether one can be provided. It is only where such a workplace adjustment will cause a hardship to an employer that a reasonable accommodation can properly be called ‘unreasonable.’ Errors in this area can be costly. Take, e.g., the employer ordered by the MCAD in January 2014 to pay a former employee more than $130,000, with substantial interest and legal fees to follow, because it failed to discuss the worker’s request for an extension to his leave of absence before it fired him.

Frankly, no employer should ever find itself in a position like this. Discretion being a critical part of running any business, all must be familiar enough with the law to know when to seek legal help before making the typically irreversible decision to terminate a worker who even might be handicapped. Whenever an employee is experiencing difficulty at work due to a known medical condition, employers should move cautiously. Taking time to consult with an attorney or to research key issues oneself may be time and/or money well spent.