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Work restrictions? Seek job accommodations

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It can be frustrating and confusing to deal with a supposedly disabled employee. Because the ADA measures each individual’s disability by what he or she can’t do, employers can never be certain they’re in the right if they reject a disability claim.

That’s one reason many employers conclude the safest approach is to make accommodations even if they aren’t entirely sure the employee is disabled. That’s especially true if the needed accommodations are easy and inexpensive.

Here’s an example: If an employee tells you she can’t lift more than 20 pounds, is that covered under the ADA? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how that lifting restriction measures up against the problems ordinary people face while going about their daily tasks.

Recent case: Pauline Alexander underwent successful treatment for breast cancer. However, her treatments left her unable to lift more than 20 pounds over her head. That made it hard to perform her job at QVC, the cable television shopping channel.

When QVC terminated her because she couldn’t do her job, she sued, alleging she was disabled and should have been accommodated.

The court said that a 20-pound restriction could be severe enough to make Alexander disabled—if she could show how much the restriction limited her daily life. What sorts of tasks could Alexander have pointed to? Possibilities included the inability to lift a toddler, grocery bags, a laundry basket and so forth.

Fortunately for QVC, Alexander didn’t come up with any tasks she couldn’t do and lost the case. (Alexander v. QVC Distribution Center, No. 4:08-CV-32, ED NC, 2009)

Final note: Alexander represented herself until late in the litigation process. Had she hired an attorney earlier, she might have been able to show that her lifting restriction substantially limited the major life function of caring for oneself.

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