Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must accommodate workers with disabilities. If an employer takes a negative employment action (firing, refusing to hire, demoting, refusing to promote, etc.) against an employee with a physical, mental or even emotional disability, the disability can’t be the reason.
If an otherwise-qualified employee needs reasonable (not overly burdensome) accommodations for his or her disability in order to do the job, the employer must provide them. Employers also face serious legal trouble if they retaliate against employees for exercising their rights under the ADA.
This is more than fair, but it can create challenges for employers trying to accommodate disabilities while enforcing the rules of their workplace. It’s a difficult balance, but a recent ruling from a federal appellate court may provide guidance.
The case involved Shannan McDonald, a receptionist in Michigan who suffered from a genetic disorder that had required a number of surgeries for which she had to take time off from work. She was a union member working under a collective bargaining agreement that required workers to take lunch breaks no earlier than 11 a.m. Employees had to decide between a 30-minute lunch break with additional 15-minute breaks (not to be tacked on to the lunch break) and a one-hour lunch break.
McDonald chose a half-hour break but started leaving for the company gym at 10:30 a.m. to exercise while tacking on her 15-minute breaks to create an hour break. She also was accused of sexually harassing another worker.
While the company was investigating the alleged harassment, McDonald asked to switch to an hour-long break or tack on her breaks in order to continue exercising during the workday, explaining that it helped with her pain.
Her supervisor denied the request because it didn’t comply with the work rules under the CBA. She also warned McDonald that continued violations of the lunch break policy would result in discipline.
McDonald provided the personnel manager with a doctor’s note confirming she needed to exercise every day for at least 30 minutes. While the personnel manager was processing her request, McDonald left early to go to the gym without permission. She was suspended for violating workplace rules and resigned.
McDonald sued her employer for violating the ADA by refusing to accommodate her disability and for retaliating against her by suspending her. But the court, upholding a trial judge’s dismissal of the case, rejected her claim.
The court found that the employer met its obligation to reasonably accommodate McDonald. It noted that the employer listened to her request, provided alternatives and listened to her subsequent request, but she quit before it could process that request. It noted that less than two months had passed between the initial request and her resignation. The court also rejected her retaliation claim, pointing out that McDonald was suspended for violating rules and not for requesting an accommodation.
So what does this case show? Employers can hold fast to their workplace rules as long as they do so in a fair and even-handed manner and are flexible about requests for accommodations.
However, a 2014 case from California ended differently. In that case, a diabetic employee at a Walgreen’s pharmacy was fired for violating an “anti-grazing” policy that barred workers from eating food sold in the store without first paying for it. The employee claimed she suffered a hypoglycemic attack when restocking items. She was allowed to carry candy in case she experienced a crash but didn’t have any with her, so she grabbed a $1.37 bag of potato chips and ate a few. She claimed she tried to pay for the chips once she felt better, but nobody was at the counter where employees paid for items. She stowed the chips under the counter by her register, where a supervisor found them and fired her.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) went after Walgreen’s under the ADA, claiming disability discrimination. Walgreen’s countered that it didn’t fire the worker for her disability, but for the theft. It also pointed out that it was losing more than $350 million a year to employee theft at its thousands of locations, so it had to enforce its policy strictly.
But a federal judge rejected this argument, stating that Walgreen’s had to address the “business necessity” of the policy in the context of an employee suffering a medical event.
The judge also pointed out that Walgreen’s couldn’t establish the employee was “stealing” in light of her claimed attempts to pay for the chips. Ultimately, the company’s conduct in this case resulted in a $180,000 settlement with the EEOC on the worker’s behalf.
That costly bag of chips serves as a warning that although work rules matter, they should be applied reasonably. And both cases show that when work rules run into conflict with the ADA, employers should talk to an employment lawyer to discuss the best way to proceed.