On Monday, March 25, 2019, I had the privilege to co-present on reasonable accommodations and the interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) at the HR in Hospitality Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the issues covered during our presentation involved the fact that the ADA does not require that employers provide the specific accommodation requested by an employee as long as the employer offers a reasonable accommodation to the employee who made the request. While employers can use their business judgment when deciding how best to reasonably accommodate an employee, a settlement recently announced by the EEOC underscores that many employers would be well-advised to develop internal procedures or guidelines to help ensure that those involved in the accommodation process understand what is expected of them and the company when responding to accommodation requests. According to a lawsuit filed by EEOC in Minnesota, a Bath and Body Works store failed to reasonably accommodation a sales associate with type-1 diabetes suffering retinopathy who asked that a larger monitor screen be placed at the cash register. Instead, a store manager purchased what the EEOC described as “a cheap, hand-held magnifying glass” to be used by the sales associate when working the register.
Several states have taken steps toward legalizing marijuana in some form. However, these laws differ in many respects and raise interesting questions for employers, especially as they relate to off-duty conduct.
While some states such as Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota provide specific statutory protections for employees that have a valid prescription for medical marijuana, there has been an increase in litigation under state disability discrimination laws for failure to accommodate an employee’s use of marijuana to treat a disability. The lingering question remains whether an employer’s decision to take an adverse action against an employee for using medical marijuana outside the workplace is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or a state’s disability Continue reading
Over the past several years, we have written extensively about employers’ obligations to make their websites accessible for individuals with visual, hearing and physical impairments. In the past, we have counseled employers who are considered a “place of public accommodation” (such as a hotel, restaurant, place of recreation, doctor’s office, etc.) to at the very least do some due diligence to determine whether their websites are accessible for disabled users, so that those individuals can use and navigate those websites and/or purchase goods sold on the websites. (For more information about the developing law on this issue, check out our prior posts here and here.) Now, for the first time, a U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled on this issue and has confirmed that so long as there is a “nexus” between a company’s website and a physical location (which is typically the case), a company must make its website accessible or risk significant legal exposure for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
(As a reminder, although not the subject of this blog post, we have also written about a second consideration here regarding website accessibility that applies only to hotels and other places of lodging and currently is the subject of a tremendous amount of litigation. Specifically, the implementing regulations of Title III of the ADA require a hotel’s website to provide information regarding various accessibility features at its property, so that a mobility impaired individual can determine whether he or she can navigate the public areas and guestrooms at the property.).
What happens when the religious beliefs of an applicant conflict with your grooming and appearance policy? What if the applicant is seeking a public-facing position in which they will be the first (and only) representative of your organization with whom most members of the public interact? While some employers may believe that “image is everything” when it comes to the appearance of their public-facing employees, a 4.9 million-dollar settlement of a religious discrimination lawsuit announced recently by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) serves as a stark reminder to employers that even your most straightforward policies may need to be modified in certain situations. As detailed in our June 7, 2018 blog post, the EEOC has been aggressively making good on the promise made in the agency’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 – 2021 to focus on “class-based recruitment and hiring practices” that discriminate against people with disabilities by filing a series of lawsuits accusing employers of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by inquiring about prior medical histories, subjecting applicants to physical capacity tests and refusing to hire individuals who disclosed certain conditions. The agency’s Strategic Enforcement Plan similarly committed to rooting out religious barriers to employment. This is important because while many employers readily understand the need to reasonably accommodate disabled applicants and employees, it seems that some employers fail to grasp that they may also have to accommodate religious beliefs and practices of applicants and employees.
What the Law Requires
Title VII requires that employers, once informed that a religious accommodation is needed, accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. If an employer’s dress and grooming policy conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the EEOC expects Continue reading
On October 17, 2018, the Trump Administration released its Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions (“Agenda”). Reports such as these, usually issued twice a year, set forth each federal agency’s forecast of its anticipated actions and rulemaking priorities for the next six-month period. It also provides estimated timelines for completion. This regulatory to-do list provides insight into the administration’s upcoming priorities. The current Agenda emphasizes the Trump Administration’s efforts to deregulate industry, but also includes several regulatory items of importance to employers.
Here is a summary, broken down by department, of the most significant employment-related items addressed in the Agenda.
Department of Labor
Wage and Hour Division
Joint Employment. The Obama administration took a much broader view of “joint employment” – situations in which a worker may be considered an employee of two or more separate employers. Following the lead of the NLRB, which last month issued its own proposed rule re-tightening the standard for joint employment, the DOL announced its intention to “clarify the contours of the joint employment relationship to assist the regulated community in complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act.” A notice of proposed rulemaking is scheduled to issue as early as December 2018 and will hopefully modernize the method for determining joint employment in today’s workplace.
White Collar Overtime Exemption. The DOL has listed as a priority its long-awaited rule to update the salary level for the exemption of executive, administrative and professional employees under the FLSA (the so-called white-collar exemption). It is expected to raise the threshold exemption for such employees from the historical level under the FLSA ($23,660 annually), but not as high as the former rule adopted by the Obama administration, which would have more than doubled the minimum salary level but was enjoined by a court. The timeframe is somewhat unclear and has been pushed back twice already. The Agenda states it is now expected in March 2019.
Regular Rate. Under the FLSA, employers must pay covered employees time and a half their regular rate of pay for hours worked in excess of forty hours in a workweek. The DOL has stated its intent to amend its regulations “to clarify, update and define the regular rate requirements under the FLSA.” The new proposal is expected in December 2018.
Tip Regulations. In March of 2018, the omnibus budget bill amended the FLSA and addressed rules affecting tipped employees and so-called “tip pooling.” The DOL is expected to issue a proposed rule this month to clarify and address the impact of the 2018 FLSA amendments.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses. OSHA proposed to amend its recordkeeping regulation to remove the requirement to electronically submit to OSHA information from OSHA Form 300 (Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses) and OSHA Form 301 (Injury and Illness Incident Report) for establishments with 250 or more employees which are required to routinely keep injury and illness records. Under the proposed rule, these establishments would be required to electronically submit only information from the OSHA Form 300A (Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses). OSHA also proposed to add the Employer Identification Number (EIN) to the data collection to increase the likelihood that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) would be able to match OSHA-collected data to BLS Survey of Occupational Injury and Illness (SOII) data and potentially reduce the burden on employers who are required to report injury and illness data both to OSHA (for the electronic recordkeeping requirement) and to BLS. OSHA is reviewing comments and is expected to publish a final rule in June 2019. Many entities submitted comments regarding the anti-retaliation provisions of the rule, but it is not known whether OSHA will make further changes to that aspect of the rule. Meanwhile, OSHA issued a memorandum on October 11, 2018 with the stated intent of clarifying that the rule does not prohibit workplace safety incentive programs or post-incident drug testing. Action taken under a safety incentive program or post-incident drug testing policy would only violate 29 C.F.R. § 1904.35(b)(1)(iv) if the employer took the action to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health. This rulemaking has been moved from the Proposed Rule Stage to the Final Rule Stage. Continue reading
As you know, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against disabled employees and job applicants in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, and promotion. It also provides rules for employers regarding the extent to which they may inquire about an employee’s physical or mental health, and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to covered employees, unless such accommodations would cause undue hardship. Whether an accommodation is reasonable or would cause undue hardship on the employer is very fact-specific and is usually determined on a case-by-case basis, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) seems to have taken a hardline approach on employer policies related to certain types of accommodations.
One type of accommodation often requested is leave (which also tends to implicate the Family and Medical Leave Act). Employers frequently receive such a request where an employee suffers a disabling injury, such as a broken bone, that requires him to miss work for an extended period of time to recover. In this context, the employee will normally request leave for an extensive, but certain amount of time with at least a tentative end date, usually in accordance with his doctor’s recommendation. Although most circuit courts agree that employers need not provide employees with indefinite leave, enforcement guidance provided by the EEOC states that company policies setting a finite limit on the length of leave violates the ADA’s requirement for employers to engage in the interactive process to discuss reasonable accommodations.
So, what happens if an employer implements a blanket “no fault” attendance policy, whereby employees are assigned points for absences, regardless of reason, and are terminated for not being able to return to work after 180 days of leave? Employers might think this is an effective way to maintain neutrality and avoid asking employees about their reasons for taking leave – it gives employees the power to manage their leave as they see fit and takes management out of the picture. But, the EEOC disagrees. In fact, the EEOC would call this a form of “systemic discrimination against employees with disabilities” in violation of federal law, as demonstrated by a recent July 2018 consent decree entered into by the EEOC and Mueller Industries, Inc.
In EEOC v. Mueller Industries, Inc., the EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California against Mueller Industries, Inc., a global metal goods manufacturer, claiming disability discrimination. It charged the company with terminating employees and/or failing to provide reasonable accommodations for those exceeding its maximum 180-day leave policy. The EEOC also stated that the company violated federal law by implementing its attendance policy in a way that assigned points for absences, regardless of reason. Essentially, the EEOC took issue with the fact that the “no fault” policy did not allow for the type of individualized assessment that the ADA requires. Through the interactive process, employers and covered employees are meant to discuss the types of accommodations needed to allow the employee to perform his essential job functions, and to permit employers to determine whether the accommodations discussed are reasonable. Although the burden of raising the need for an accommodation rests on the employee, once an accommodation has been requested, or the need for an accommodation has been identified, it is the responsibility of the employer to initiate the interactive process and determine a reasonable accommodation for that individual employee. The EEOC’s enforcement guidance and July 2018 consent decree seem to direct that a “one-size-fits-all” leave policy simply does not work.
The case concluded when the parties entered into a consent decree, which will remain in effect for two-and-a-half years and applies to all Mueller facilities nationwide. It provides for $1 million in monetary relief, as well as broad injunctive relief. Namely, the consent decree requires that Mueller reinstate any affected individuals, revise its written policies and procedures regarding its complaint system, appoint an ADA coordinator, create and maintain an accommodation log, post a notice for its employees about the case, provide training to all employees on the ADA, develop a centralized tracking system for accommodation requests, and submit annual reports to the EEOC verifying compliance with the decree. This can be a pretty hefty price for employers to pay, all over one policy.
In light of the EEOC’s guidance and apparent enforcement posture, employers should review their attendance procedures and make sure they are not implementing such blanket “no fault” leave policies that do not make room for employers and disabled employees to engage in the interactive process. Leave policies should always be developed and written with the ADA in mind. This is especially true in today’s enforcement climate where the EEOC has announced that addressing emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including issues involving the ADA, is one of its six national priorities identified in its Strategic Enforcement Plan.