The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Law both protect employees (and potential employees) from discrimination in the workplace based on their handicap or disability. The federal and state laws largely cover the same ground. However, Massachusetts laws extend protections to more private employers and some types of medical conditions not covered by the ADA.
Every Disability Case Is Unique
The law requires more than simply refusing to hire someone with a disability. An employer must also not refuse a “reasonable accommodation” for an employee's handicap or job restriction. As for what constitutes “reasonable”?
“It’s hard to determine because, like a lot of employment law, it’s fact-intensive and decided on a case by case basis,” says Tani E. Sapirstein
, an attorney who handles such employment cases with Sapirstein & Sapirstein in Springfield. “It depends on the type of employer, size of the employer, resources of the employer. If it’s a smaller sized employer and it’s an extensive accommodation, it may create an undue burden. But if you have 500 employees, less would constitute as an undue hardship. It really depends on the accommodation request.”
There is no one-size-fits-all rule written in the law, since it covers a wide variety of disabilities.
A reasonable accommodation may involve something relatively simple, like altering an employee's work schedule or work environment. In more complex cases, accommodation may require providing special tools to assist the employee or even shifting certain, less essential functions of the job to another employee. Depending on the circumstances, the employer may offer to reassign the employee to another job, although the law does not require an employer to do so. The goal is to enable the employee with an impairment to have the same access to employment as non-handicapped employees.
However, an employer may deny a requested accommodation if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the business. Again, there is no fixed method for determining what constitutes such a hardship. The factors that need to be considered are the actual costs to the employer, and the impact on its financial resources and other employees.
Taking Legal Action Against an Uncooperative Employer
Under federal law, employers may not legally ask an employee if they have a disability, either during the application process or after they are hired. This means the employee must inform the employer that they have a disability and ask for reasonable accommodation. Once an employee’s request is made, the ADA and state anti-discrimination laws require the employer to participate in an “interactive process” to determine the best way make a reasonable accommodation.
“The most important thing is the interactive process—the requests and responses, and determining if it’s reasonable,” Sapirstein says. “The obligation is for both parties, so neither one can drop the ball.”
An employee should initiate that process, and take their request to the appropriate level such as a supervisor or human resources representative. Ideally it would be in writing, but that’s not often the case, Sapirstein says. In fact, employers may allege in court that the responsibility was never fulfilled.
If ever you aren’t satisfied with an outcome of this process—or the employer fails to participate or in any way violates the employee's rights—he or she may file a complaint with either the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Qualified employment law attorneys
can help determine the best course of action. Once an agency reviews the employee's complaint, it can issue a “right to sue” letter authorizing further legal action.