How Reasonable Must Your Employer Be?

Jewel-Osco’s parent company (Supervalu Inc.) recently settled a $3.2 million disability discrimination case. Employees claimed that after coming back from medical leave they were illegally fired rather than accommodated. One hundred and ten employees will receive about $29,000 each from the settlement. The company, on the other hand, says that it fully complied with the law. So why did they settle? Good question.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is meant to protect workers with disabilities, and it requires employers to make changes and help employees keep their jobs. If you become legally blind, your employer should accommodate you, meaning they must allow you to continue to work, even if they have to change your job description, rearrange your schedule, provide visual assistance devices, alter materials so you can read them, etc.

You can see why disagreements arise. It’s not always easy. An employer may have to change the way they operate or make physical changes to an office or building. There is a limit. An employer doesn’t have to make an accommodation that would cause serious difficulty or expense. What might be reasonable for a large business may be an undue hardship – and not required – for a small business. It depends a lot on the company’s resources. Jewel-Osco, being a large company with a lot of employees, can probably handle many types of accommodations.

Your employer cannot deny an accommodation simply because it costs them money. They cannot dock your pay because to make up for the cost. They cannot make decisions on whether to promote you, give you a pay raise or fire you based on your disability.

On the other hand, you may have to make compromises. Your employer doesn’t have to provide the best accommodation or the one you prefer. If there are several solutions, your employer can probably choose among them. Not every injury or condition counts as a disability under the ADA.

And you should be aware that just because you qualify as disabled doesn’t mean you can’t be fired. The law does not guarantee that you can keep your job. It just says that an employer cannot fire you because of your disability and they must make reasonable accommodations. Can they make up a bogus reason to fire you? Sure. It probably happens all the time. Anti-discrimination laws are necessary, in my opinion, but they can only do so much.

Some employers ignore the law. Many don’t understand it to begin with. And even if they are aware of the law, they can’t provide accommodations unless they are aware of the disability, so it’s usually a good idea to be upfront about what you need. If you are getting resistance from your employer or feel you are being discriminated against, you can talk to a lawyer, or call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or both. You may only have six months to file a claim.

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