The federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits federal employers and government contractors from discriminating against otherwise qualified workers or job candidates with disabilities.
That means it’s illegal for a federal agency or contractor to fire, demote or refuse to hire someone based on their disability. It also means such employers must provide reasonable accommodations that can enable a disabled person to do the job. Employers who retaliate against employees for requesting an accommodation for their disability may face consequences as well, as happened recently in Virginia.
That case arose several months after disabled veteran Anthon Calix-Hestick started working for the U.S. Postal Service. His second-line supervisor had planned to fire him for a poor attendance record but held back upon learning in a meeting with him that his absences were due to medical appointments.
During that meeting, Calix-Hestick requested a standing mat to help with pain in his knees. The USPS then sent him home without pay and subsequently fired him for his answers to open-ended questions on an application form that called for subjective-based answers.
When Calix-Hestick brought a retaliation claim under the Rehabilitation Act, the USPS argued that it had a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for doing what it did. But a federal judge ruled that the claim could proceed, noting that conflicting explanations by USPS managers involved in the decision suggested that the employer’s stated reason for the termination may have been a pretext — or smokescreen — for retaliation.
Calix-Hestick now will have a chance to bring his case before a jury. But even if the postal service prevails, it will likely come after a costly, time-consuming trial, which is not desirable for any employer.
Additionally, while the Rehabilitation Act covers federal workers and employees of government contractors, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act offers similar protection to private employees nationwide. This means all employers should have an attorney review their procedures for dealing with workers requesting accommodations for potential disabilities.