It can be devastating when an employee becomes severely disabled in the prime of life, especially if it’s clear the disability means she will never be able to perform her old job without substantial assistance. Well-intentioned, compassionate employers try their best to help.
But the tough question is how far they should go to accommodate the disabled employee’s restrictions. In other words, employers have to decide what is a reasonable accommodation and what is not.
Fortunately, courts provide some solid guidance.
As a rule, employers aren’t required to completely restructure a job so the disabled employee can perform its essential functions. Nor must they remove essential functions.
Recent case: Loretta Steward worked for Chrysler for years. Steward, who is black, complained that the production line on which she worked was racially segregated. Then she became disabled and was unable to complete large parts of her job as a windshield installer.
Chrysler first tried to accommodate Steward by providing her with a full-time helper who did all the parts of the job that Steward couldn’t perform. Obviously, this was an expensive proposition.
When the labor budget tightened, Chrysler decided to eliminate the accommodation and wouldn’t allow Steward to have full-time help. Because no other jobs were available, the company “accommodated” Steward with leave at 95% of regular pay until the anticipated expiration of her union’s contract.
Steward sued, alleging she had not been accommodated.
The court disagreed. It pointed out that courts in the jurisdiction of the 6th Circuit had never considered it reasonable to require accommodations that transferred 20% or more of a job’s essential functions to other employees. It also noted that employers aren’t required to redesign jobs or hire new employees to accommodate disabled workers. (Steward v. New Chrysler, No. 08-1282, 6th Cir., 2011)
Final note: Steward’s lawsuit also alleged race discrimination. She claimed blacks were segregated at the back end of the production line and had to do the most difficult work. She said there was a “good old boy” white section at the front of the line. She claimed a supervisor regularly moved the line forward while those at the “black” end of the line were still working, creating safety problems.
When the case went to court, several black co-workers testified that the line was segregated and tasks were unfairly distributed. However, they couldn’t provide any specific examples.
Chrysler noted that there were at least four white employees working on the so-called “black” section, and that white employees did some of the hardest jobs on the line.
In addition, the evidence showed that the line supervisor may well have favored some white workers with whom he socialized. On the other hand, it was clear he also treated poorly several white workers who were not his friends. That was evidence that race wasn’t a factor.
Finally, the court concluded that by moving the line forward too early, the supervisor was inconveniencing everybody on the line, including blacks, whites and other minority group members.
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