What are Employer Obligations under the ADA

Thirty years have passed since the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law.  This law was the most significant piece of civil rights legislation for those with disabilities.  The ADA offers individuals with disabilities important protections from discrimination in the workplace so they can pursue meaningful employment.

Nearly all employers agree that individuals with disabilities should not experience discrimination in employment.  Unfortunately, the ADA is complicated and, even with the best of intentions, employers mistakenly violate the law.  This post provides a general overview of employer obligations under the ADA, merely to raise your awareness.  For more detailed information, call us at Concerto Law, to discuss your specific questions.

The Definition of Disabled

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job seekers based on disability.  To qualify for ADA protection, the individual must have a disability or a relationship with an individual who has a disability (for example, a parent caring for a child with a disability).

The ADA defines a person with a disability as:

  • an individual who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or
  • an individual who has a history of an impairment, even if they do not currently have it; or
  • an individual regarded as having a disability even if they do not have one.

The term “major life activities” is broad.  It includes obvious activities, such as those seeing, hearing, walking, speaking, and breathing.  It also includes many less obvious activities, such as sleeping, eating, reading, concentrating, thinking, bending, standing, and many more.

Are All Employers Required to Comply with the ADA?

No. The ADA applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.  Do not stop reading yet.  Pennsylvania has a similar law.  The Human Relations Act extends workplace protections for disabled employees who work at a company with four or more employees.

What is Discrimination?

Though there are minor differences between state and federal laws protecting disabled employees, generally, the following situations are examples of workplace discrimination:

  • Refusing to hire an individual due to his or her disability.
  • Firing an employee due to his or her disability.
  • Asking about past or current disabilities when recruiting or interviewing an individual for a job.
  • Retaliating against any employee who files a complaint against the manager or employer alleging a violation of the ADA
  • Refusing to promote or offer benefits to an employee due to his or her disability

This is not an exhaustive list.  There are many more situations that are discriminatory.

What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

In addition to prohibiting discriminatory practices in the workplace, the ADA also requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to disabled employees.

Briefly, a “reasonable accommodation” is a modification provided by the employer so the employee may perform the essential functions of a job.  Examples include:

  • Making existing workstations accessible (ex., wheelchair-accessible desks, screen magnifiers, headsets, adaptive light switches, )
  • Making the workplace space accessible (doorways, door handles, hallways, ramps)
  • Allowing part-time or modified work schedules
  • Allowing service animals in the workplace
  • Providing a reasonable amount of unpaid leave

An employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it would constitute an “undue hardship” on the workplace or other employees.  This is a complex legal issue.  Employers should consult an attorney before determining whether an accommodation is an “undue hardship”.

COVID-19 and ADA

How does COVID-19 affect an employer’s obligations under the ADA?  That is an interesting question.  Here are just a few of the questions employers have:

  • Can a company require employees to take a COVID-19 test before returning to work? Yes, in some situations and with some types of tests.
  • Can workers keep working from home after stay-at-home orders have lifted? Only if their employer allows. However, employers are not required to offer indefinite teleworking options after public health measures are no longer useful.  
  • Can employers request certain employees to stay home while others have returned to work? Generally, no.

Conclusion

The Americans with Disabilities Act is complicated.  This blog only touches the surface of this topic.  To make sure you are within the bounds of the law in your particular circumstances, contact Concerto Law today to get the counsel of a knowledgeable and experienced attorney. Give us a call soon at 814-706-1288.