Suppose you run a service business with a front desk — a hotel, perhaps. Or you hire cashiers to work at a cash register. You need employees to work at that desk or cash register. Most of the time the desk clerk or cashier is standing, right? Is it necessary that they stand for the job? In many cases, no. What if your employee asked for a chair and that s/he be allowed to sit? You might not feel strongly enough to argue the point. Or maybe you have a preference, and you feel that since you are the employer and what you say should go. What if you nicely and politely deny the request. Or maybe, initially you allow the chair but then you change your mind. You then end up in court. Wait. What? The employee could sue you — over a chair? Would a court actually take such a claim seriously? I mean wouldn’t that case be dismissed almost immediately? You might already know where I’m going with this scenario, but yes, you could be sued, and you could lose that case, over a chair. When and how can that happen? The good news is that you can avoid such an outcome. Let’s have a look at the whys, wherefores, and hows, shall we?
Can this really happen? Has it really happened? Yes. The Grand Hyatt Hotel just settled a case with the EEOC on this very issue. (I also posted about a similar case a while back, which you can find here). OK, so here’s what went down: It’s a relatively simple set of facts. An employee worked at the front desk of the Grand Hyatt. The employee had a chronic back impairment that often caused severe pain. Standing for prolonged periods aggravated the back impairment. The employee requested that he be provided and allowed to sit on a chair. Initially the hotel agreed and provided the chair– for approximately two weeks. The hotel then refused to continue providing the chair or any other accommodation to the employee.
In addition to seeming mean and petty what is wrong with what the Hyatt did? You may already know the answer. The Hyatt’s refusal to provide the chair or an alternate accommodate violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (and the Amendments Act or ADAAA). Let’s review: the ADA prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in hiring or regarding all terms, privileges, benefits and conditions of employment. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities is discrimination within the meaning of the ADA/ADAAA.
What makes someone qualified? If s/he has the necessary skills, experience, training, etc to perform the essential job functions, or if s/he can perform the essential job functions either with or without a reasonable accommodation, s/he is a qualified individual. The ADA is fairly inclusive in its definition of a disability. Let’s just accept that a chronic back injury is a disability within the meaning of the ADA — because it is. OK, so what’s a reasonable accommodation? Basically a modification to job requirements or work environment or policies that addresses the issue at hand, that is not an undue hardship. well, that just raises another question, right? What’s an undue hardship? When the requested accommodation would pose a significant cost or hardship or significantly burden day to day operation.
Let’s apply these points to the known facts of this case. How hard is it really to provide an employee a chair? How expensive is it? I should also add that the employee proved — and the employer was unable to seriously dispute– that the chair hampered his ability to perform his essential job functions. The settlement requires the employer to pay $85k to the employee, and allow the employee a 6-week leave (presumably to recover from the aggravation to his back impairment), and of course, provide the chair. This of course is all in addition to the money The Grand Hyatt had to pay its attorney(s) to defend the case.
You may not feel that you need me to tell you the takeaways, but I will anyway. Here they are:
- Take all requests for accommodations of disabilities seriously;
- If the requested accommodation doesn’t hamper performance of essential job functions and it doesn’t cost you much, grant it;
- If you believe the request would pose an undue hardship, explore alternatives until you either find one or you properly conclude you cannot. Either provide the alternative or document that you could not do so and why;
- Document everything!
- Speak with your friendly employment counsel before you take any adverse actions against employees seeking reasonable accommodations of a disability.
As you can see, the Grand Hyatt apparently did not take the above steps. Well, what can I say, except that turned out to be one very expensive chair! Until the next time…
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