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The Americans with Disabilities Act What Employers Need to Know

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) has been around for some time, many employers are often unsure of their obligations toward the disabled employee as well as their responsibility to safeguard the disabled employee’s health information. Should other employees be told that a co-worker is suffering from Cancer? HIV? Alcoholism? All of these conditions are considered to be a disability under ADA. Generally, the Americans with Disabilities Act forbids an employer from discriminating against a disabled employee. Discrimination includes failing to provide reasonable accommodations for any known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee with a disability, absent a showing that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or the manner in which a job is usually performed that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. However, the employer is not required to undertake reasonable accommodations that place an undue burden on the employer. For instance, an employee suffering from a disease such as cancer or HIV may need extended specialized treatment that is only available during normal business hours. In such an instance, the employer should reasonably accommodate the need of the disabled employee by giving the employee the necessary time off to undergo the necessary treatment. One unique situation is alcoholism. While employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations, such as allowing the employee to attend any necessary treatments, an employer does not have to accommodate intoxication in the workplace.

Much of the confusion over the employer’s obligation stems from learning of a disability in the first place. An employer unfamiliar with the Americans with Disabilities Act typically has legal questions regarding the disability information itself. Generally, the employer is required to keep any health information learned from the employee confidential. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Certain persons may need to know of the disability to ensure that reasonable accommodations are being made for the disabled employee, such as supervisors and managers. Of course, there are other situations where the employer can disclose the medical information, such as to first-aid and safety personnel, should emergency treatment be required and government officials investigating compliance with ADA. The employer may otherwise use the confidential information and share it with a healthcare profession or other third party to determine and provide reasonable accommodations for the employee. However, the employer should seek to ensure that any third party also keeps the information confidential. Generally, heath information should not otherwise be disclosed to other employees.

Ultimately, the employer must keep the essential purpose of ADA in mind. An employer should not fire, wrongly discipline, close off opportunities for advancement, or otherwise discriminate in any way against a disabled employee. Under ADA, discrimination includes failing to make reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee, unless the accommodation would place an undue hardship on the operation of the business.