Have Faith: 4.9 Million Dollar Settlement Underscores Importance of Accommodating Religious Beliefs During Hiring Process

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?  shutterstock_EEOCWhile 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

[Webinar] A Business Primer on Disability Access Laws: Preventive Tools and Defense Strategies

On Thursday, October 25, 2018, at 1 pm EDT, join Kara M. Maciel and Andrew J. Sommer of Conn Maciel Carey’s national Labor & Employment Practice Group for a complimentary webinar:  “A Business Primer on Disability Access Laws:  Preventive Tools and Defense Strategies

Businesses continue to be plagued by litigation under the Americans with Disabilities, Title III (ADA) over alleged access barriers.  Lawsuits against hotels and retailers, among other public accommodations, appear to be on the rise with a disproportionate share in California.

Disability Webinar

This webinar will provide an overview of ADA, Title III standards as they apply to construction existing before the enactment of the ADA in 1992 as well as to subsequent new construction and alterations.  The webinar will also address Continue reading

EEOC Attacks “No Fault” Attendance Policies as ADA Violations

As you know,shutterstock_policies and procedures 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.

TROUBLE WANTED: EEOC CONTINUES EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE ILLEGAL HIRING PRACTICES

By: Aaron Gelb

shutterstock_application (002)Hiring practices, by their nature, have the potential to impact large groups of individuals.  Employers using certain screening tools such as pre-employment tests and medical questionnaires may thus find themselves having to defend their policies and procedures in litigation brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  Last year, the EEOC announced in its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for Fiscal Years 2017 – 2021 that it will continue to focus on “class-based recruitment and hiring practices that discriminate against racial, ethnic, and religious groups, older workers, women, and people with disabilities.”  Since issuing the SEP, the agency has filed a number of lawsuits across the country against employers accused of creating barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities.  These cases serve as important reminders that even the most well-intentioned employers should take a close look at the tools they are using to screen applicants for the various positions they are attempting to fill or run the risk of squaring off against the EEOC.

Prescription Medications

Two recently filed lawsuits highlight the perils associated with pre-employment drug testing and/or asking applicants about their prescription drug usage.

In EEOC v. M.G. Oil Co. d/b/a Happy Jack’s Casino, 4:16-cv-04131-KES (D. S.D.), the agency accused the defendant of discriminating against an applicant for a cashier position by revoking her conditional employment offer after learning she received a non-negative drug screen result.  M.G. Oil promptly filed a third-party complaint seeking indemnity and contribution from TestPoint Paramedical, LLC, the company which administered the drug test.  M.G. Oil accused TestPoint of failing to send the test results to a medical review officer to determine if there was a valid reason for the non-negative result. M.G. Oil’s gamble failed as the court dismissed the claims against TestPoint, leaving M.G. Oil to explain why it refused to reconsider its decision to revoke the applicant’s offer after she explained the non-negative drug test result was due to her lawful use of a prescription pain killer she took for back pain.  The EEOC also accused M.G. Oil of violating the ADA by requiring all employees to report both prescription and non-prescription medications they are taking.  Eventually, the Company entered a consent decree settling the lawsuit, agreeing to pay $45,000 and adopt company-wide policies to prevent future hiring issues under the ADA.  The company also agreed to only require employees to report prescription and non-prescription medications that may affect their performance. Continue reading

New Wave of ADA Website Lawsuits

Recently, there have been a slew of lawsuits filed across the country alleging that owners and operators of hotels and other places of lodging are using websites that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  These lawsuits are different than the wave of lawsuits and demand letters sent to so many hotels and other places of public accommodation the last few years alleging that those companies failed to make their websites accessible for users with visual, hearing and physical impairments by not adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).  (For more information about the WCAG issue, check out our prior posts on that issue here and here.)ADA website picture

ADA regulations require hotels to make reasonable modifications in their policies and practices when necessary to afford goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities.  Because the purpose of a hotel’s website is, in large part, to allow members of the public to review information pertaining to the goods and services available at the hotel and then reserve appropriate guest accommodations, such websites have been found to be subject to the requirements of ADA regulations.  According to these regulations, a hotel must identify and describe accessible features in the facilities and guest rooms offered through its reservations service in enough detail to reasonably permit individuals with disabilities to assess independently whether a given facility or guest room meets his or her accessibility needs. Thus, rather than alleging that the website itself is inaccessible to users with disabilities, these “new” website accessibility lawsuits claim that a hotel’s website violates the ADA by failing to sufficiently identify and describe the physical “brick and mortar” accessibility features of the hotel.

Continue reading

Much Ado About Something: Recent Appellate Court Decisions Limiting Leave as an Accommodation Are Indeed Significant but Employers Should Still Tread Carefully

By: Aaron Gelb

1 (3)Last fall, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) handed down two decisions restricting the amount of leave employers must offer as an accommodation.   (Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. and Golden v. IHA).  Management-side employment lawyers celebrated.  Employers breathed a sigh of relief.  The Seventh Circuit had finally given employers some much-needed certainty; a bright line, if you will.  Relying on these decisions, employers in the Seventh Circuit saw little risk rejecting requests for leave extending beyond 4 weeks.  Many employers, though, adopted a wait-and-see approach.  The US Supreme Court might take up the issue and reverse the Seventh Circuit.  To the surprise of many, the Supreme Court declined in April 2018 to weigh in on the issue.  Severson (and Golden) thus remain the law of the land—in the Seventh Circuit.  While these decisions are significant, employers must remain diligent when dealing with employees temporarily unable to do their jobs.

Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has long held that an employer must offer leave as a reasonable accommodation.   Typically, the EEOC recommends that employers first explore whether a modification of the workplace, duties or policies will enable the employee to continue doing their job.  If no such accommodation is available, the EEOC expects employers to offer a leave of absence for a definite amount of time so the employee can return to her position at the end of the leave.  When neither option is feasible, the EEOC maintains the employer should reassign the disabled employee to a vacant position for which she is qualified.  Continue reading

Kara Maciel to Speak at HR in Hospitality Conference on Marijuana Laws

marijuana pictureOn March 6, 2018, Kara Maciel, Chair of Conn Maciel Carey’s Labor & Employment Practice Group will present at the HR in Hospitality Conference on the recent trend of medical and recreational marijuana laws.

As we have written about in the past, to date, 26 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and eight states (plus D.C.) permit its recreational use.  As marijuana laws become more liberal and usage becomes more pervasive, employers must address the emergent issue of marijuana in the workplace and the legal implications of employee use. For example, must employers make accommodations for employees with valid marijuana prescriptions, allowing them to use the drug on the job?  At this session, Ms. Maciel will discuss solutions to these and other accommodation issues, with a look at recent court opinions.

The HR in Hospitality conference is a unique event where hundreds of human resources and labor relations professionals from hotels, resorts, restaurants, casinos, cruise lines come together to learn legal and practical guidance on issues specifically tailored to the hospitality industry!  To learn more about the conference and to register, click here.