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If disability affects performance, demotion may be in order

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Disabled employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations, including the elimination of nonessential functions and help to perform the essential functions of their jobs. But what if an employee is functioning at a lower level than the job’s grade requires? Can you offer a demotion as an accommodation?

The answer is “yes”—if you do your homework. That means reviewing performance standards and comparing the disabled employee’s performance over time with the job’s requirements. Then sit down with the employee to explain why you think he or she is capable of performing the essential functions of the lower-ranked position but not the original, higher-ranked one.

Recent case: Maralyn James worked as a Librarian I for over 20 years with no apparent problems. When she was promoted to Librarian II, however, she began having problems. She received several performance evaluations that indicated she wasn’t working up to speed. James especially had trouble cataloguing new materials. Employees classified as Librarian IIs were expected to catalog seven to eight items per hour, but James barely managed two an hour.

That’s when James claimed she was disabled by headaches and high blood pressure. She requested accommodations. The library then provided her with special glasses and improved lighting, plus it suggested ways she could work faster. While her output increased, she still couldn’t hit the target. The library offered to transfer her to a Librarian I position with a slight cut in pay, but she refused and sued instead.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a jury award in James’ favor. It concluded a transfer could be a reasonable accommodation, even if it meant a pay cut. (James v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, No. 04-5874, 6th Cir., 2007)

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