The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to protect disabled individuals from discrimination in a similar way that the Civil Rights Act protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual identity.
Title I of the ADA offers disabled employees and job seekers protection from discrimination. Title I is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Many people who report discrimination to the EEOC choose to retain an attorney to assist with their claim because an attorney can help with gathering evidence, negotiating with employers, and filing a lawsuit after the EEOC has conducted an investigation.
Employers who discriminate against individuals with disabilities may be subject to legal liability. Employers are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act during the hiring process and may not terminate employees because of a disability if the employee is able to perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation. Employers are limited as to what questions they can ask that relate to a disability, and the results of any medical screenings must be kept confidential.
What companies must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Employers with at least 15 employees must comply with the ADA as well as employment agencies and labor management organizations. Employers must comply with the ADA during the hiring process as well as during the course of a worker's employment. Some employees may become disabled during the course of their employment due to an accident or illness and may need to request an accommodation to continue to perform job duties.
Religious organizations with 15 or more employees are subject to the same rules under the ADA as other employers. However, employees who perform ministerial duties may not be protected by the ADA based on the “ministerial exception.” This exception is based on a religious organization's First Amendment right to be free from governmental interference with free speech.
Companies must avoid discrimination in their interviewing and hiring practices. An employer can ask about a job applicant's ability to perform a certain task as long as the employer does not ask for information about a disability that suggests discrimination. For example, an employer can ask if an applicant can lift objects over 20 pounds but may not ask if the ability to do so would be limited by a physical condition. Employers who require medical screenings after giving a prospective employee an offer must administer the same type of screening to all job candidates.
Protected Conditions under the ADA
The ADA defines a person with a disability as one of the following:
- A person with a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity;
- A person with a record of such a disability; or
- A person regarded as having such an impairment.
Both physical and mental disabilities are covered by the ADA. Some disabilities -- like a major illness -- may be temporary. Job performance is not relevant to the requirements for employers under the ADA as long as an employee is able to perform the essential functions of a job with or without accommodation. Even if a person with a disability is performing well and exceeding the employer's expectations, the employer must still comply with all requirements of the ADA.
A person may not be discriminated against based on medical history. For example, if a person who has had cancer that is now in remission is not hired because an employer is worried that his or her ability to perform the job may be affected if their cancer returns, the employer has engaged in discrimination.
Many employees have disabilities -- like mental conditions -- that are not readily apparent. Workers are not required to disclose information about a disability unless they are requesting an accommodation. Some federal employers ask for voluntary disclosure of information about disabilities to ensure that needs are being met. This information must be kept confidential and not shared with other workers. If you do not feel comfortable sharing information about a disability and do not need an accommodation to help you perform job tasks, you are not obligated to share information about your condition with co-workers or supervisors.
An employee who has been granted leave must be allowed to return to the same job when he or she returns from leave unless the employee is unable to perform essential job functions even with a reasonable accommodation or their condition poses a risk to the health or safety of the employee or other workers. In some cases, an employee may be able to request a transfer to a different role within the company as a reasonable accommodation. Employers who transfer employees who have returned from medical leave without the employee's consent risk facing legal liability for discrimination.
What are reasonable accommodations?
An employee who requests a reasonable accommodation that would allow him or her to better cope with a disability at work must be provided one. Employers are not required to provide accommodations that would create undue hardship for the business. Employers should provide reasonable accommodations if an accommodation would permit an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job.
Examples of reasonable accommodations include the following:
- Altering an employee's schedule to allow him or her to attend medical appointments and physical therapy;
- Providing a sign language interpreter for a deaf employee;
- Providing a quieter workspace for a person with a mental disability;
- Installing a ramp for wheelchair access;
- Modifying a workspace for an employee with a physical disability; and/or
- Allowing an employee with diabetes to take regular breaks to monitor blood sugar levels.
You do not need to fill out any special forms to request reasonable accommodation. You can let your employer know that you need one or provide a note from your doctor regarding your request. Employers are not allowed to ask for more information about your medical condition than they are entitled to by law. They are not entitled to your entire medical record.
Your employer should work with you to make an accommodation. If more than one accommodation would enable an employee to perform the essential functions of their job, the employer may select the accommodation that would be less expensive or easier for the employer to provide.
Whether an accommodation is reasonable or not will depend on the nature of the job description. For example, some employees may be able to work at home whereas this would not be feasible in another type of job because working from home would prevent the employee from being able to perform the essential functions of the job or create undue hardship for the employer. Some types of jobs require an employee to be present at the job site.
What qualifies as a violation of my rights under the ADA?
Many actions by an employer can be considered discriminatory. Some employers may violate employee rights simply because they are not fully informed about their legal obligations. If your employment has been terminated or you have received a demotion or were not hired because of a disability, the employer may have violated the requirements of the ADA. Here are several examples of actions by an employer that could be considered discrimination:
- Asking an employee for information about a disability during an interview;
- Terminating employment after an employee returns from medical leave because supervisors are concerned the condition will affect the employee's job performance in the future;
- Refusing a reasonable accommodation requested by an employee; and
- Sharing information about a medical condition with other employees.
Employers are not obligated to provide personal items such as hearing aids or glasses to employees who request them. However, an employer cannot deny their use if such items would assist the employee to better be able to perform his or her job duties.
What should I do if I think my rights under the ADA have been violated in New Jersey?
If you believe your rights have been violated, you should contact an attorney right away. There are strict time limitations for reporting discrimination claims, and you will want to make sure that your rights are protected.
An attorney may be able to help you negotiate with your employer if you are seeking an accommodation or reinstatement of your job. In some cases, your company's human resources department may be able to help. However, it is important to keep in mind that human resource departments work to keep their company out of legal trouble. An attorney can act as your advocate when you need to report discrimination. Reporting discrimination can be a difficult situation, especially when you need to go above the level of your direct supervisor. Many cases are settled without proceeding to a trial through mediation.
You may need to report the violation to the EEOC before you are granted a notice of right to sue in federal court. After you file a complaint with the EEOC, the agency will conduct an investigation and may help you settle your case. If the EEOC does not agree to help you settle your case, you may be issued a notice of right to sue after it has conducted its investigation.
Contact a New Jersey attorney about your ADA violation questions
It is not always clear prior to investigation whether or not discrimination has occurred. An attorney may be able to help you gather evidence to support your claim. If you have questions about a discrimination case in New Jersey, contact Kim & Feliz, attorneys at law online or call (201) 585-2250.