Accommodating Persons with Disabilities
a recent decision, the United States Supreme Court reminded employers
not to rigidly apply employment policies to disabled employees who seek
accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA
prohibits an employer from discriminating against an "individual
with a disability," who with a"reasonable accommodation"
can perform the essential functions of the job. The ADA does not, however,
require an employer to make accommodations that impose an undue hardship
on business operations.
v. US Airways, a disabled employee asked US Airways to make an exception
to its seniority system and as an accommodation for his back disability,
allow him to permanently work in the mailroom. Under its seniority system,
US Airways temporarily placed him in a mailroom position while he recuperated
from a back injury. The same seniority system allowed employees with more
years of service to periodically bid on the permanent mailroom position.
US Airways decided not to make an exception, and Barnett lost his job.
under the ADA, claiming that he qualified as an individual with a disability
and the mailroom job amounted to a reasonable accommodation. He further
argued that in refusing to assign him to the mailroom job, US Airways
discriminated against him.
asserted that its seniority system required it to allow other employees
to seek the mailroom job, and the requested accommodation was therefore
not reasonable. US Airways argued that when a requested accommodation
violates a disability-neutral workplace rule, it gives the disabled employee
a preference when the ADA requires only equal treatment. In rejecting
this argument, the Court held that, by definition, any accommodation requires
an employer to treat a disabled employee preferentially and "the
fact that the difference in treatment violates an employer's disability-neutral
rule cannot by itself place the accommodation beyond the Act's potential
further held that an employer should determine not only whether a proposed
accommodation will result in an "undue hardship" to its operations,
but also to other employees because an effective accommodation "could
prove unreasonable because of its impact, not on business operations,
but on fellow employees-say, because it will lead to dismissals, relocations,
or modification of employee benefits to which an employer, looking at
the matter from a perspective of the business itself, may be relatively
acknowledged the importance of seniority systems to employee-management
relations and reasoned that because Congress did not displace them, a
requested accommodation will require modification of a seniority system
only if an employee can show special circumstances such as an employer's
frequent changes or exceptions to the system.
of this decision, how should supervisors apply employment policies?
neutral employment policies uniformly, fairly and consistently to all
- If employment
policies are not consistently applied, courts will not subordinate reasonable
accommodation requests to employment policies.
a disabled employee requests an accommodation that violates a neutral
employment policy, do not automatically reject the request but determine
if an exception to the policy will result in an "undue hardship."
in the Summer 2002 Edition of In Brief