Job descriptions at Northern States Power Co. make it an "essential function" for customer service reps to handle emergency calls like gas leaks and downed power lines.
Loretta Emerson handled those calls, about 10 percent of her call load, just fine until she smacked her head while roller blading. After that, she had memory problems and began experiencing panic attacks. The company doctor cleared her to work only in non-safety positions, so she was assigned a temporary job. When that ran out, she was let go.
She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), arguing that she was unfairly fired because of her disability. The company won.
Reason: The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Emerson wasn't qualified for protection under the ADA because she couldn't handle an essential function of her job: the safety-sensitive calls. If Emerson had a panic attack while on a safety call, that could put the public at risk. (Emerson v. Northern States Power Co., No. 00-3746, 7th Cir., 2001)
Advice: You don't have to compromise employee or customer safety to fulfill ADA obligations. The law says an employee is not a qualified individual if she poses "a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation."
So even if a job function makes up only a small fraction of an employee's workload, it may be considered an essential function. In the same way, a firefighter may only rarely have to carry a heavy person from a burning building, but being able to do it is essential.
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