Employees who ask for and receive disability benefits may sometimes also ask for workplace accommodations for their disabilities. In some cases, they may be entitled to both; in other cases, not.
That puts your organization in a bind. If you deny the requested accommodations, the employee may sue for ADA violations. That's why you need to know when disabled workers can claim disability benefits and still be considered a qualified person with a disability.
The Supreme Court has ruled previously that employees can request Social Security disability and demand accommodation if those two claims aren't inconsistent. (Cleveland v. PolicySystems) The key is to look at the person's ability. As the following case shows, you don't need to accommodate employees who are totally disabled and can't perform the core job functions, even with an accommodation. But if they can still perform the job, you may need to accommodate.
Recent case: After a fall, Christopher Opsteen developed severe memory problems. He applied for and received disability benefits under Social Security and his employer's disability plan. Opsteen's applications for those programs claimed he was totally disabled and unable to work. Still, Opsteen asked for his job back and, as an accommodation, an assistant to help him safely work an oxyacetylene torch.
The employer refused, noting that, in his application for disability benefits, Opsteen claimed he couldn't perform his old job, even with accommodations. And his doctor said the only jobs he could hold would be in a sheltered workshop where he could be closely supervised.
Opsteen sued under the ADA, but the court tossed out his case, saying that employees who are totally disabled and can't perform the essential duties of a job (even with accommodation) aren't eligible to file ADA suits. (Opsteen v. Keller Structures, Inc., No. 02-C-1121, 4th Cir., 2005)
- Good faith is the key to litigation-Proof employment decisions
- Combat employee absence with a positive discipline program
- Congress OKs New Genetic Bias Law—What's it Mean for HR?
- Guard against punishing FLSA whistle-blowers
- After poor-performing worker complains about e-mail, should we follow through on plans to fire?