SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in Reasonable Accommodation

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.

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.

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.

The New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled that an employer’s pregnancy leave policy that requires pregnant employees to exhaust their accrued paid sick and vacation time to be in violation the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  In finding for the employee in the reported decision of the the entitled Delanoy v. Township of Ocean, the analyzed the New Jersey Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, an amendment to the Law Against Discrimination dating back to January 17, 2014, which specifically made pregnancy a protected class under the state anti-discrimination law.  The court’s decision is being viewed as a significant legal victory of New Jersey pregnant worker’s rights.

The appeal arose from a suit brought by an Ocean Township police officer, alleging pregnancy-based discrimination in connection with her request for an accommodation related to her pregnancy. Specifically, she claimed that the Township’s policy regarding pregnant workers is discriminatory on its face and that the requirement that she exchange her accrued PTO as a condition of her accommodation amounted to an unlawful penalty.When Plaintiff became pregnant, she submitted a doctor’s note to the Township advising them of her pregnancy and her need to be transferred to a light-duty position. Plaintiff sought the transfer from September 22, 2014 through the end of her pregnancy, in March 2015.

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On or about September 22, 2014, Plaintiff was provided an administrative position in the Township’s Department of Records, and was further assigned to receiving walk-in complaints at the police station. In her role as the walk-in officer, Plaintiff did not feel comfortable as her pregnancy precluded the use of her firearm and the position had dangerous propensities. Nevertheless, she performed her duties as instructed. Despite her ability to work and prior to her expected due date, around February 25, 2015, the Township forced Plaintiff to take her pregnancy leave early and begin using her PTO. In total, Plaintiff was required to deplete 2 weeks of PTO.

An Essex County New Jersey Superior Court judge has issued an opinion that held that a Professional Employer Organization (also known as PEO) can be considered a co-employer for the purposes of the state’s Law Against Discrimination.  In the case, Stephanie Perez sued not only her W-2 employer, the Dermatology Group, P.C., but also their designated PEOs, ADP TotalSource II, Inc. and ADP, LLC t/a ADP Major, for claims of pregnancy discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate and unlawful retaliation. This is an important development in how New Jersey courts are treating the relationship between employees, their primary employers, and PEOs.

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PEOs are organizations that provide support services, including human resources services, to companies. Typically, PEOs provide such services to small and medium sized companies that do not have internal staff committed to providing such services. Over the past 40 years, PEOs have become a substantial segment of the national employment landscape. According to statistics reported by the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (“NAPEO”), there are now over 907 PEOs operating in the United States providing services to 175,000 small and medium-sized businesses, which in turn employ approximately 3,700,000 employees nationwide.

Often, PEOs are designated as the W-2 employer or act in a capacity of being a co-employer with an employee’s primary employer. As NAPEO acknowledges, PEOs typically work alongside the primary employer and “both parties might share responsibility for [certain] obligations and be ‘an’ employer” in the context of the performance of those obligations.  Because many PEO’s provide advice and counsel on employment law related policies as part of their services, issues arise when that advice or counsel is wrong and plays a determinative factor in causing an unlawful termination.

New Jersey law provides for strong protections for disabled employees who suffer discrimination at the workplace. What is widely considered as on the most powerful anti-discrimination laws in the country, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination bars discrimination of individuals based on protected characteristics in the terms and conditions of employment. The law specifically prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s disability or perceived disability and requires employers to engage in an interactive process in order to determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be provided to employees with a disability. What exactly this process and the resulting accommodations may consist of has been established by various court case rulings since the law’s passing in 1945.

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Tynan v. Vicinage 13 is a landmark disability discrimination and failure to reasonable accommodated case that was decided in 2002 by a New Jersey Superior Court in the Appellate Division.  The plaintiff employee in this case was employed by Vicinage 13 of Superior Court as the Hunterdon County Jury Manager.  She suffered from a combination of physical and mental disabilities including migraines, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and hypertension. The plaintiff claimed that these disabilities were exacerbated by harassment and mistreatment from her supervisor at Vicinage 13. On multiple occasions, her supervisor issued disciplinary actions against Ms. Tyan for minor oversights and threatened to terminate her employment regularly. The stress caused by the severe treatment and allegedly hostile work environment exacerbated Ms. Tynan’s disabilities and caused her to become sicker, both mentally and physically. Ms. Tynan complained formally to the Assistant Trial Court Administrato and the court’s Human Resources Division, describing her disabilities, the supervisor’s behavior, and a need for accommodations. Tynan was provided with a plan to remedy the situation involving processes of mediation between her and her supervisor.

Shortly after this plan was created, Ms. Tynan’s exacerbated medical conditions caused her to require a leave from her employment with Vicinage 13. She was approved for family leave and planned to return approximately 11 months later. During this leave, Ms. Tynan received treatment for various disabilities, particularly for her depression and hypertension. Her treating physicians recommended that Ms. Tynan continue her leave from Vicinage 13, and that it would be important for her to report to a different administrator upon return as a result of the extreme stress that Pardo’s treatment caused Ms. Tynan. At the end of her planned family leave, Ms. Tynan requested additional time off and to report to a different administrator upon return. The employer denied both of these accommodations and told Ms. Tynan that if she did not report to work immediately, she will be considered to have resigned from her position. Ms. Tynan could not return to work as a result of her disabilities and was effectively terminated from her position with Vicinage 13.

The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects New Jersey employees from being fired for failing a drug test in connection with medical marijuana use. For employees who use medical marijuana, this provides some extra protections with respect to their employment. With approximately 45,000 registered patients in the medical marijuana program, and an additional 2,000 members joining every month, this decision has far-reaching implications as it will protect those with disabilities requiring use of medical marijuana.

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The Appellate Division suggested that, to the extent the use of medical marijuana is limited to non-working hours, it does not translate that an employee is unable to perform their job duties and responsibilities. The Appellate Division’s decision was based upon a lawsuit filed by 41-year old Justin Wild, a cancer patient, who was fired from his employment at a funeral home as a result of his medical marijuana use during non-working hours.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees. The New Jersey state discrimination law requires that employees provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees who need assistance in performing the essential functions of his or her job. When an employee provides sufficient notice to his or her employer that they need assistance as a result of a disability, the employer is obligated to work with the employee in an interactive process to determine whether the requested or other accommodation can provided to the employee.  The employer must provide a reasonable accommodation, unless they can show that the accommodation would constitute an undue hardship on their business operations.

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