The numbers are daunting: Diabetes affects about one in 14 Americans and it’s the fifth leading cause of death in the country. Almost 80 percent more diabetics are in the U.S. work force now than just a decade ago, and experts predict those numbers will rise.
For employers, the twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity are eating into profits and creating legal land mines. One estimate puts the cost of a diabetic employee at five times that of a nondiabetic.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal law that governs most interactions between employers and diabetic patients. But some state disability civil-rights laws offer more liberal definitions of a “disability,” meaning employers in those states may have to accommodate diabetics who would not merit the same treatment in other states.
Navigating the ADA
Both the ADA and the federal Rehabilitation Act (which covers federally funded jobs) require employers to make reasonable job accommodations for “qualified employees with a disability.” A person is qualified if he or she can perform the job’s essential functions with or without an accommodation. Employers can’t discriminate against people due to their need of an accommodation.
As simple as that sounds, various courts around the country have offered conflicting rulings, some saying diabetes is a qualified “disability,” others saying it is not.
The ADA says a disability is an impairment that “substantially limits at least one major life function.” But how severe does a condition have to be to “substantially limit?” And what is a “major life function?” Those questions call for an individual assessment, so each case is different.
If the employee doesn’t meet the definition of a “disabled person” under the ADA, the employer isn’t obligated to provide accommodation. Of course, refusing to provide an accommodation is daring a person to sue. So what’s an employer to do?
How to approach accommodations
If an employee meets the criteria of being disabled, you must offer accommodations unless doing so would be an “undue hardship” on your organization. But use that defense sparingly; a jury likely won’t see it the same way.
Many accommodations for diabetics are relatively minor and inexpensive, such as giving employees:
• A private area to test blood sugar levels or take insulin.
• Breaks to eat or drink, take medication or test sugar levels.
Other accommodations are more involved but still may be required, such as allowing leave for treatment or recuperation and modifying the employee’s work schedule.
Dealing with safety concerns. Many diabetic-related ADA lawsuits start because employers refuse to accommodate employees for safety reasons. The fear: Diabetics could faint or black out, creating a hazard for themselves or others at work. For example, jobs involving driving are often off-limits for diabetics.
The EEOC has warned employers to “be careful not to act on myths, fears or stereotypes” about diabetes. It says employers must look at each case individually and that most safety issues can be mitigated through accommodations.
If you’re concerned that an employee’s diabetes could harm the safety of others, you can send that employee for a medical exam. Limit your exam to obtaining information needed to decide if the employee can safely perform his or her job.
Bottom line: When faced with a diabetic employee requesting accommodation, look at the accommodation, not the condition. If the accommodation is reasonable, allow it. If not, document the likely costs, because the analysis will be necessary if the case goes to court.
Remember that you don’t have to provide the exact accommodation requested by the employee. If you find another accommodation that allows the person to perform the job’s essential functions, it will meet the law’s requirements. Because disputes can often arise from the choice of accommodation, document all accommodation options thoroughly.
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