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When employee requests accommodation, beware overly cautious return-to-work conditions

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law

When employees who have had serious health crises return to work, employers often worry that they may not be able to work safely. While that may seem like a valid concern for em­ployee welfare, courts seldom see it that way.

In fact, if a returning employee also requested reasonable accommodations, refusing to let him return may amount to retaliation for protected activity.

Recent case: Douglas Baker, a forklift operator, went out on medical leave for a heart condition. After exhausting his paid leave and undergoing a defibrillator and pacemaker implant, he sought to return to work.

He asked his employer to provide him with reasonable accommodations so he could avoid electromagnetic fields that might interfere with his implanted heart devices. He wanted to wear a sensor that measures electromagnetic levels, and requested a special forklift route that would keep him out of harm’s way.

The employer told him he could return to work only if he agreed to waive any potential future claims for workers’ compensation benefits.

Baker sued, alleging ADA retaliation. The company argued that it refused to let him return out of concern it couldn’t protect him from harm.

But the court saw instead a calculated effort to let Baker expose himself to harm as long as he promised not to claim workers’ compensation benefits. It said the limited return offer was retaliation for requesting accommodations. (Baker v. Windsor Republic Doors, No. 08-6200, 6th Cir., 2011)

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