In ADA Website Accessibility Cases, Remediation May Be a Successful Defense

Q.  What can I do to protect my company from lawsuits claiming that our website is not accessible to visually-impaired individuals?

A.  Companies, universities and other organizations around the country continue to face an onslaught of lawsuits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging that commercial websites cannot be appropriately accessed by visually impaired individuals. A recent opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York provides a potential roadmap for companies to stave off litigation by taking action to remediate barriers to full website accessibility.

For full article, click here.

Jeffrey M. Goldman, Tracey E. Diamond, and Victoria D. Summerfield

Woof Woof: Accommodating Animals in the Workplace

Q.  An employee has requested that he be allowed to bring his Labradoodle to work with him. Do we have to accommodate this request?

A.  Pets are accompanying their masters everywhere these days. It is not unusual to see pets in public areas, including restaurants, and even on airplanes. Likewise, more employees are requesting to bring man’s best friend to work.  Whether an employer has to accommodate such a request depends on whether the employee is qualified individual with a disability and the request for accommodation would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.  If the workplace is also a place of public accommodation, then the company also should be mindful of the rules under the  Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) for “service animals.”

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Yes, you did read that correctly.  Miniature horses are covered by the Act, although other animals, such as cats, are not.  Examples of the type of work or tasks performed by service animals include:  (i) guiding a blind employee, (ii) alerting a deaf individual, (iii) pulling a wheelchair, (iv) alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, (v) alerting a diabetic that his or her blood sugar has reached certain high or low levels, (vi) reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and (vii) calming an employee with a mental health disability during an anxiety attack.  The work or task the service animal has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.

When it is not obvious what service a particular animal provides, a place of accommodation may only ask the following questions: (1) whether the animal is a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the service animal has been trained to perform. The company may not require the individual to demonstrate that the service animal has been trained to perform a certain task.  Moreover, the ADA does not require that service animals be trained by a professional training program.  Instead, individuals with disabilities have the right to train the service animal themselves.  Likewise, the ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness, or require that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.

Animals in Private Workplaces

If your workplace is not a place of public accommodation, then the ADA does not have specific rules governing the type of animal allowed.  Employers will need to engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether allowing the animal into the workplace will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job without posing an undue hardship on the employer or a direct threat to health and safety in the workplace.  As part of the interactive process, the employer should ask the employee to provide medical documentation of the nature of the disability and way in which the animal would enable the employee to perform his or her job functions.  The employer can provide an alternative accommodation so long as the accommodation would be as effective in enabling the employee to perform the job.

Written Policies

Employers should consider putting a written policy in place, taking into consideration several practices, including, for example, the employee’s responsibility to keep the animal harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls. In addition, a policy can clarify the employee’s responsibility to provide care and food for the animal.  Moreover, an individual with a disability can be asked to remove his animal from the workplace if: (a) the animal is out of control and the employee does not take effective action to control it, (b) the animal is not housebroken; (c) the facility cannot accommodate the animal’s type, size, or weight; or (4) the animal’s presence will compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.

Significantly, however, a coworker’s allergies or fear of dogs may not be valid reasons for prohibiting animals from the workplace. When a coworker who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility, or modifying work schedules.

–Tracey E. Diamond

 

Accommodations May Be Needed for Hearing-Impaired Job Applicants and Employees

Q: I understand that employers may be required to offer reasonable accommodations to hearing-impaired applicants and employees. When are accommodations required?  What kind of accommodations must employers offer?

A: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment. In the context of a job application, an accommodation is considered to be reasonable if it enables an applicant with a disability to have an equal opportunity to apply for and be considered for a job.  In the context of employment, an accommodation is considered to be reasonable if it enables an employee to perform the essential functions of the position.

Employers should be aware of the importance of being alert to the need for potential accommodations, and following through on such accommodations in the case of hearing-impaired applicants and employees. In the application stage, employers may become aware that an applicant has a disability through voluntary disclosure, or because it is obvious, such as when the applicant uses a service to respond to telephone inquiries, or requests a sign language interpreter for an interview.  Upon obtaining such knowledge, employers should engage in the interactive process to inquire whether the applicant needs a reasonable accommodation for the application process.

It is important to separate the accommodations needed for the application process from those that may be needed to perform the job. Employers should not assume that the accommodation needed for the application process will be the same as the accommodation needed for the job.  Conversely, an individual may not need an accommodation for the application process, but may need one for the job itself.

Possible accommodations for hearing-impaired applicants during the application process may include a sign language interpreter and providing information in written rather than oral form. The same alteration of the way information is provided during the application process can constitute an accommodation for the job itself.  Other potential accommodations could include captioned or text telephones and voice recognition software.  Some accommodations may be needed only occasionally – for example, a deaf employee who can lip-read may be able to rely on lip-reading in his day-to-day communications, but may require a sign language interpreter for group meetings.

Employers are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation if the employee is not a qualified individual with a disability, if the employer and employee are not able to identify a reasonable accommodation that would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, or if the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the company.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has recently focused its attention on alleged failures to accommodate hearing-impaired individuals, particularly during the employment application process. Whether the ability to hear is an essential function of a job (and thus, whether applicant or employee could perform the job with a reasonable accommodation) is a fact-specific inquiry.  For example, courts have held that the ability to hear audible alarms is an essential function under certain circumstances.  Courts have also held that strong verbal communication is an essential function of some jobs, and that an employee’s use of non-verbal modes of communication is not a reasonable accommodation of that function.

Employers should ensure that managers and human resources personnel are properly trained to identify situations where potential accommodations for deaf applicants or employees may be needed, and that such personnel understand how the accommodation process works.

Jessica Rothenberg

FLSA Implications When Telecommuting Due to Illness

Q: I received an email from an employee stating that he is sick, but will be working from home.  Should I allow my employee to work remotely while sick?  What are the FLSA implications of allowing an employee to work from home while sick?

A: The practice of working remotely or telecommunicating has become increasingly popular given technological advancements like smart phones, videoconferencing, and instant messaging services.  While telecommuting provides several benefits for employers and employees, it can also create new challenges such as when employees opt to work from home while sick.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), requires employers to pay employees for all time spent completing productive work, regardless if the employer knew that the work was being performed. Although this rule applies to both exempt and non-exempt employees, an employee’s exempt status determines how one’s payment will be calculated when he or she is working from home while sick.

If an exempt employee works remotely while sick, then the employer must pay the employee for a whole day of work, even if the employee only works for an hour or two. However, if a non-exempt employee works from home while sick, then the employer is only required to pay the employee for the actual amount of time worked.  Thus, under the FLSA, even if an employer prohibits employees from working from home while sick, employees must be paid for any productive work they complete.

Whether a company should allow its employees to work remotely while sick depends on a number of factors, including but not limited to the extent of the employee’s sickness and the nature of the employee’s work. For example, working from home with a sprained ankle is different from working with the flu.  Moreover, certain jobs do not lend themselves to working from home, such as face-to-face customer service, working a cash register, working at a food establishment or a construction site.

If an employer decides to allow employees to work from home when they are sick, it is recommended that the employer create and implement a remote work sick policy. This policy should discuss when a sick employee can work from home, which positions the policy applies to, the types of assignments that can be worked on (i.e. responding to emails, or participating in conference calls), and how employees should track their time.  It is also recommended that the employer include language in the policy that gives it the discretion to limit an employee’s ability to work from home if the employee submits subpar work.  If an illness turns into a qualified disability under the ADA, the employer would need to engage in the interactive process to determine whether a telecommuting arrangement would be a reasonable accommodation.  For more information on telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation, see our blog post here.

For assistance drafting a remote work sick policy, contact a labor and employment attorney.

– Renee C. Manson

 

Interplay of FMLA and ADA Precludes Employers from Automatically Terminating Employees at End of FMLA Leave

Q: Can my company fire an employee once the person has exhausted his or her FMLA leave entitlement?

A: Many employers are surprised to learn that they may not necessarily terminate an employee if he or she does not return to work at the end of FMLA leave.  Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave.  Upon returning from FMLA leave, except in a few limited situations, an employee is guaranteed the right to return to the same position or to an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment that the employee held before the leave commenced.  Under FMLA regulations, however, an employee does not have a right to return to work if he or she is unable to perform the essential duties of the position.

But what if the employee asks for more time off after the FMLA leave period has expired?

Once an employee has exhausted his or her FMLA leave, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to consider whether an extension of leave is warranted as a reasonable accommodation of a disability. An extended leave may be a reasonable accommodation if it is for a finite period of time to receive treatment or to recover from a disability.  Employers must consider each situation on a case-by-case basis, engaging in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether the employee has a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and whether an extended leave would be a reasonable accommodation to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job once he or she returns to work.  Employers also must determine whether there are any applicable state laws or worker’s compensation laws that are implicated.

In addition to considering the application of the ADA to each employee’s situation, employers should ensure that their employee handbooks do not contain return to work policies that violate the law. Language that calls for automatic termination after the employee has been absent for a certain period of time may give rise to liability for failure to consider the impact of the ADA.

–Renee C. Manson