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Is employee disabled or not? How to make the ADA call

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in HR Management,Human Resources

It’s happened to most HR specialists—a supervisor calls and says an employee claims he’s disabled so he can’t work the night shift or lift anything heavier than a ream of paper. Plus, the employee wants extra breaks beyond those everyone else gets because his disability tires him easily. How do you respond?

Start by assessing the situation. Tell the supervisor that HR will take the lead, at least until everyone figures out whether the employee has a valid claim.

Then start the interactive accommodations process the ADA requires. That doesn’t mean admitting the employee is disabled. It just means getting more information from the employee, including an assessment of his claimed disability.

After you learn more about the condition, analyze whether the employee really meets the ADA definition (see box below). You should consider possible accommodations only when you are certain the employee is disabled. Otherwise, let the supervisor and the employee know you don’t think the ADA covers the condition.

Recent case: Larry Smith worked as a truck driver until he had a heart attack and had a defibrillator implanted in his chest. Because of his poor health, he couldn’t pass the commercial driver’s license examination and was transferred to a yard jockey position.

Eventually, Smith’s medical restrictions changed. He couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds or rotate his shoulder over his head—things that the yard jockey position required. He was placed on leave and soon retired.

Smith filed an ADA lawsuit claiming the company should have accommodated his lifting restrictions. But the court analyzed his limitations and concluded he wasn’t substantially limited in any major life functions. Some lifting restrictions may be disabling, but Smith’s were not. The court said the restriction would have to be “extremely limiting” and impair the ability to do something centrally important to most people’s daily lives. (Larry Smith v. ABF Freight, No. 1:04-CV-2231, MD PA, 2007) 

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