SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in Disability Discrimination

For the past year, employees have been undergoing medical screenings and answering questions about their personal health to gain access to their physical workplaces. Employers can lawfully request their health status or require them to take leave from work if they appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. Despite laws protecting employee privacy and the dignity of being in control of our own medical decisions, the public health emergency resulting from the spread of COVID-19 has drastically changed the landscape when it comes to employment decisions based on disability or perceived disability, the duty to reasonably accommodate and the prohibition against workplace retaliation.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes discrimination based on disability illegal and protects from retaliation individuals who exercise their rights under that law. Other laws, including state and local laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York City Human Rights Law, provide employees with additional protections. Anti-discrimination laws continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they must coexist with guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local health authorities concerning, among other things, an employer’s right to access employees’ medical information and perform health screenings in the workplace. The intertwining of anti-discrimination laws and public health regulations in the current climate has created a question about whether a COVID-19 infection or perceived infection qualifies an employee for anti-discrimination protection based on disability. The answer will be different depending on whether federal or state law governs the employment relationship, and if state law, which state.

Disability discrimination occurs under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when an employer treats an employee unfavorably because he or she has a disability, has a history of a disability (such as cancer that has entered remission), or because the employer believes the employee has or used to have a disability. However, not all medical conditions equate to disabilities under the legal definition of the term. A person can show that he or she has a disability in one of three ways: (1) he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, hearing, learning, or limits the operation of a major bodily function); (2) he or she has a history of such a disability (past depression that is currently being successfully treated); or (3) he or she is subject to an adverse employment action (such as demotion, termination or a change in job duties or pay) due to the employer’s belief that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that is more than something minor and temporary.

As domestic travel numbers rise and airports are once again filled with travelers, airlines continue to struggle to comply with accommodations for travelers with disabilities. Most recently, a viral social media video by Bri Scalesse, who is wheelchair-bound, shows her horror and distraught emotion when informed that Delta Airlines severely damaged her wheelchair during the course of her flight from Minneapolis to Newark, NJ. Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.  In 2018, 36,930 disability-related complaints were made to airlines. Airlines were reported to have lost or broken 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters in 2019, more than 1 out of every 100 they handle.

fullsizeoutput_3f-300x169Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), discrimination against people with disabilities in “public accommodations” is forbidden, including but not limited to an express list of the private entities that are considered public accommodations. The list includes all terminals, depots, or other stations used specifically for public transportation, like bus, rail, and ferry stations. Notably, the list specifically excludes aircraft stations. Individuals with disabilities are often subject to discrimination when flying, met with unnecessary barriers limiting their ability to travel comfortably. While trains, buses, and other forms of transportation are forced to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and create accommodations, planes have been specifically exempt from the ADA. This is contrary to New Jersey’s statutory discriminatory act, the Law Against Discrimination. The recent April 2021 judicial decision from Wright-Phillips v. United Airlines made clear that public places of accommodation for disability discrimination protections under the Law Against Discrimination to include airport terminals, gates, and planes. The court ruled that “the United flight represented a place of public accommodation… [and] because the statute extends to “terminals thereof,” the United gate at Newark Airport was a place of public accommodation, too. Liability under the NJLAD, however, applies to people, not places.”

Under a federal scope, airplanes still fall under the Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”), which was passed four years prior to the ADA. The ACAA applies to all flights to, from, or within the United States. The ACAA prohibits airlines from discriminating against an otherwise qualified individual because the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Physical impairments are defined as any condition relating to neurological, cardiovascular, or special sense organs, which affect major life activities consisting of manual tasks, physical health functions like breathing, speaking, or walking, and physical impairments.

In a landmark decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that employees who suffer from a disability do not need to show an adverse employment action in order to prevail on a failure to reasonably accommodate claim. The case is being considered by New Jersey employment lawyers as a major victory for workplace rights of disabled employees. 

fullsizeoutput_3f-300x169The case was brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which is widely considered one the country’s strongest state anti-discrimination laws in the country. While the Law Against Discrimination mirrors the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), it does provide for some greater protections than the federal counterpart. However, both laws share the same remedial goals to allow disabled persons to maintain gainful employment by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations that will allow them to perform the essential functions of the job.  Accommodations are not considered “reasonable” if they impose an undue hardship on the employers business operations, and thus not required.  To establish a prima facie claim when he or she is able to show that he or she: (1) qualifies as an individual with a disability or is perceived as having a disability; (2) is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, or was performing those essential functions, either with or without reasonable accommodations; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate his or her disabilities. 

In the case entitled, Richter v. Oakland Board of Education, Nos. A-23 September Term 2019, 083273 (June 8, 2021), a teacher who suffered from Type-1 diabetes, sued her employer after experiencing a hypoglycemic event in her classroom during she fainted and hit her head on a science laboratory table.  As a result of the fall, Ms. Richter sustained serious and permanent life-altering injuries. Ms. Richter blames the school for the injuries because they had refused her request for an accommodation to eat lunch earlier in the day to maintain proper blood sugar levels.  According to Ms. Richter, if she was granted the requested reasonable accommodation, she would not have suffered the hypoglycemic event and would not have suffered the significant injuries.  

Statistics show people with disabilities in the United States are twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability. The issue has been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused joblessness to rise and an increase of workplace disability discrimination. But underlying the conversation about getting people with disabilities back to work is a controversial debate about where and what type of work people with disabilities should have access to and be provided reasonable accommodations.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169In September 2020, Governor Murphy announced that a total of $1,312,500 of CARES Act funding will be used to reopen 26 sheltered workshop programs throughout New Jersey which have been closed for close to a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In making this announcement, supporters credited sheltered workshops with providing “a positive and valuable service for our developmentally disabled community”, and “a safe work environment that cultivates their skills and abilities”. However just 4 months later, in January 2021, some of those same supporters advanced the argument that our state government should be doing more to help individuals with disabilities find inclusive and competitive employment. So what is a sheltered workshop and how is it different from an inclusive and competitive workplace?

A sheltered workshop is an employer that is authorized under New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law to employ individuals with disabilities at a rate less than the minimum wage. Specifically, Subchapter 9 of the Wage and Hour Law, defines “individual with disability” as someone whose earning capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability and “sheltered workshop” as a charitable organization focused on rehabilitation, employment or vocational training for individuals whose earning capacity is thus impaired. The law is based on the faulty logic that a person’s disability is the main factor impairing his or her earning potential, and not the law itself which explicitly degrades that potential. These sheltered workshops apply for permits with the Office of Wage and Hour Compliance which authorize them to employ individuals with disabilities at less than minimum wage. Only people with disabilities can be employed under these special permits, ensuring that all non-disabled employees are paid higher wages.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation this month that makes it a crime to use 911 as a tool to intimidate another person based on his or her race. The bill, which has already taken effect, was introduced to the State Senate on June 29, 2020. It amends and expands the state’s existing false public alarm statute to include false incrimination and filing a false police report as forms of bias intimidation when they are done in an attempt to intimidate or harass an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.

IMG_5257-300x169Bias intimidation has long been a crime in New Jersey, and it occurs when a person is the target of a crime specifically because of his or her race or other protected status. When this additional layer of intent is present in the commission of a crime, it is commonly referred to as a “hate crime”. The penalties for committing a hate crime or bias intimidation are usually harsher and in addition to the penalties for committing the underlying offense. The reason for the harsher penalties is that the charge of bias intimidation is generally considered a crime of one degree higher than the most serious underlying offense. For instance, let’s assume that a Caucasian man ran his car into an African American man as he crossed the street, causing serious bodily harm, and the Caucasian man did so because of his race. Because assault by auto resulting in serious bodily injury is a crime of the fourth degree, the Caucasian driver is subject to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for assault by auto. When the additional charge of bias intimidation is considered, he is now facing an additional 3-5 years in prison and $15,000 fine.

The state’s new law addressing racially-motivated 911 calls and false police reports appears to work slightly differently, however, by merging bias intimidation with the underlying crime. The statute (found at N.J.S. 2C:33-3), has been amended to add:

As schools scramble to figure out how best to reopen in a couple of weeks, with many opting for a fully remote start to the school year, teachers in some districts are faced with an all too familiar problem for working parents. How will they manage teaching in person and caring for their own kids at the same time? In towns that had planned to reopen with in person instruction, an increasing number of teachers whose children will be at home learning remotely are availing themselves of the 12-week leave available to them under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This leave will allow them to care for their own children while many school buildings and childcare centers remain closed.

IMG_4199-300x169The FFCRA is a temporary expansion to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that requires certain employers to provide their employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. These provisions will apply through December 31, 2020 to covered employers (those with between 50 and 500 employees) and any employee who has been employed for at least 30 days. Employees can request leave at any time, for several reasons, including because the employee must quarantine, a dependent of the employee must quarantine, or for childcare when the child’s school or usual childcare provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19. When the leave is requested for childcare, employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave that is subtracted from what would otherwise be their FMLA time. Employers of healthcare workers and first responders can opt out of providing this leave, and employers with fewer than 50 employees can opt out of granting leave requests specifically for childcare issues if granting the request would jeopardize the viability of the business.

Teachers who suffer from disabilities may also be entitled to accommodations, including leave of absence, if they can show the requested accommodation is reasonable and supported by medical evidence.  The Law Against Discrimination prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees in connection the terms and conditions of their employment.  The Law Against Discrimination also requires employers to engage in an interactive process with disabled employees who are in need for assistance, and provide them with reasonable accommodations, unless they can show it would be undue hardship on the school’s operations to provide the accommodation.

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), an employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations at his or her workplace when he or she has a disability and the accommodation allows him or her to carry out basic job functions. But what if the employee requires medical leave to seek treatment for the disability? How long can the requested leave be? What if the employee’s time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has already been exhausted or is unavailable? And how can the employee prove that he or she would still be able to perform basic job functions if the accommodation is provided?

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The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey answered these questions in a recent decision in the case of Pritchett v. New Jersey, when it held that leaves of absence are available accommodations under the LAD. In upholding the reasonableness of a request for a 4month extension of a medical leave, the Court determined that even unpaid leave that exceeds FMLA entitlements can be considered a reasonable accommodation, and should be assessed on a case by case basis. Additionally, the Court found that the LAD does not require expert testimony as to the individual employee’s ability to return to work. Such testimony need only attest to the fact that someone with the same disability could potentially function in the workplace.

In 2006, Shelley Pritchett was hired as a corrections officer at the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), and within a year, she was promoted to senior corrections officer. As a routine part of her job, Pritchett escorted inmates through and around the prison, responded to codes, and intervened to end physical fights between inmates when necessary. On June 8, 2011, Pritchett broke up a fight among several inmates and injured her neck, back and knee. Due to her injuries, Pritchett took medical leave pursuant to the FMLA until September 21, 2011, exhausting all of her available FMLA leave.

For New Jersey employees, the short answer is yes.  On March 20, 2020, Governor Murphy signed into law new legislation that makes it unlawful for an employer to take adverse employment actions, including termination, against any employee for requesting or taking time off from work because the employee has or is likely to have the Coronavirus. The new law, A3848, comes in the wake of the Public Health Emergency and State of Emergency declared by Governor Murphy earlier this month. This new Coronavirus job protection law will provide victims of the virus with much needed protections from losing their job or being denied reinstatement.

IMG_3800-300x169The legislation was enacted as a part of the New Jersey’s continued efforts to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic and the devastating impact is having and will continue to have on individuals and their employment. In the last few weeks, the number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus in New Jersey has continued to climb and is expected to continue to rise expenditionaly. Among the attempts to slow the spread of the disease, medical professionals have advised those who have contracted or are suspected to have contracted the novel Coronavirus to quarantine themselves. Even those individuals who have not come in to contact with the disease are being urged to practice social distancing, isolating themselves in an attempt to limit potential exposure to the disease. As Governor Murphy stated in one of his recent press briefings, “Quite simply, stay at home.”

Prior to the passing of this Coronavirus job protection law, it was unclear what sort of job protection a quarantined individual would have during the Coronavirus outbreak. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which provides employees protection from discrimination and retaliation in the workplace, has a broad definition of “disability” that includes certain types of serious illnesses. However, some courts have interpreted the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination’s broad provision concerning disabilities not to cover transient illnesses such as the flu. While the Coronavirus is concernedly much more serious than the common flu, it remains unclear whether the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is a viable avenue to relief for affected employees.

Many businesses and schools have or will be closing due to the Corona-Virus.  While some New Jersey workers can still perform their job duties and responsibilities from home, others cannot and will be temporarily or permanently separated from their employment.  For those people who are separated from their employment for COVID-19 related reasons, there are various local, state or federal governmental run programs that provide for paid benefits to impacted workers.  For New Jersey employees who find themselves unemployed due to COVID-19, they two programs that could provide for temporary relief are New Jersey Unemployment Insurance and the “Emergency Paid Leave Act of 2020” program  that was passed into law late Friday night.

IMG_3667-300x169New Jersey Unemployment Insurance Law provides for unemployment benefits for employees who are separated from their work due to no fault of their own.  Employees who are unable to perform their job duties and responsibilities at home during a Corona-Virus related business closing may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits if they meet all other eligible requirements, including the minimum earnings requirement.  Benefits under the New Jersey Unemployment Insurance program are available up to 26 weeks per year.  Eligible employees are paid 60% of his or her average weekly wage earned during the base year, with a maximum week benefit up to $713.  The current maximum total benefit for one worker to receive is $18,538 for 26 weeks of unemployment.

Workers who become eligible to receive unemployment benefits are required to be show they are (1) able to work; (2) actively seeking work; (3) available for work: and did not refuse any offer of suitable work.  While securing a new job during the Corona-Virus pandemic could prove very difficult, any person collecting unemployment benefits should still actively seek for work during their period of unemployment.  This includes applying for any open and available jobs and keeping all documentation to prove he or she conducted a diligent job search efforts should the Department of Labor request the information relating to the job search.

It is unknown how many workers across New Jersey will fall ill with COVID-19 or be quarantined as a result of a Coronavirus exposure. Many school districts across New Jersey have already closed, with more anticipated to be closed imminently.  Many New Jersey working families will need to take FMLA or other form of leave from work as a result of a family member or themselves for contracting COVID-19, or simply to care for children not in school.

IMG_3668-300x169The New Jersey Paid Family Leave Insurance provides for benefits for up to 6 weeks to provide care for a seriously ill or injured family member diagnosed with COVID-19. In order to be eligible for Family Leave benefits, a New Jersey worker would have to had paid into the system and meet the minimum gross earnings requirements.  New Jersey workers must have worked 20 weeks and earned at least $200 per week, or have earned a combined total of $10,000 in the base year. Eligible workers are currently paid 2/3 of their average weekly wage with a maximum of $667 per week. However, starting July 1, 2020, eligible workers will be paid 85% of their average weekly wage with a maximum of $881 per week.  The New Jersey Paid Family Leave Insurance law is different from the New Jersey Family Leave Act, which provides eligible employees with job protection for qualifying reasons such as child birth or to care for a family member who is suffering from a serious health condition.

If a New Jersey employee tests positive for COVID-19 or has symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and is unable to work, there are several possible state programs under which he/she may be eligible.  The employee may use accrued Earned Sick Leave. All employers, regardless of size, must provide employees with up to 40 hours of earned sick leave per year to care for themselves or a loved one. Earned Sick Leave time may accrue as you work at a rate of one hour per 30 hours worked, or, your employer may give you a “bank” of 40 hours at the beginning of the year. A New Jersey worker exposed to Coronavirus during the course of their work and directed to quarantine as a result may also use Earned Sick Leave during the quarantine period. Earned Sick Leave is also available to employees who are unable to work because their child’s school or daycare was ordered closed by a public official.

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