While attendance is an important goal, refusing to allow disabled employees some leeway is a sure way to the courtroom.
Before you adopt a strict no-excuses tardiness policy, make sure you consider the special problems disabled employees may have. You can’t just declare that being on time is an essential function of every job and leave it at that. You have to prove that being late has a severe impact on your organization.
Recent case: Tommy Holly is a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. For 17 years, he was an excellent mold polisher. Sometimes, he was a few minutes late because tables blocked the time clock or because he was last in line to clock in. Other times, he would wait out rainstorms in the parking lot to prevent spending the day in wet clothing.
Then a new HR manager introduced an attendance policy making absolute on-time arrival an essential function of every job. The new policy made no allowances for absences without a doctor’s note. Plus, the policy stated, “Employees with American Disability Act situations are not exempt from this policy.”
Holly was fired when his tardiness added up to the policy’s cutoff number. Sometimes he was late one second, other times a minute or so. Under the policy, it made no difference. Nor was the HR manager swayed by Holly’s supervisors’ pleas to allow them to retain a hard-working team member.
Holly sued, alleging he should have been accommodated. The trial court dismissed the case, but the 11th Circuit reversed it in a strongly worded opinion. Disabled employees are entitled to accommodations, and the assessment has to be individualized. Employers have to prove attendance is an essential function, and this one will have to show how a one-second late arrival could possibly disrupt the workplace. (Holly v. Clairson Industries, No. 06-13365, 11th Cir., 2007)
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