DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION IN THE WORKPLACE: ADA & PHRA
There is a very clear principle in both state and federal law that individuals with disabilities should not be discriminated against in the workplace. The first federal statute to address this issue was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. §12101, et seq.). The Americans with Disabilities Act (hereinafter referred to as “ADA”) had a stated purpose to, “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It was strengthened by amendments in 2008 (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, abbreviated as ADAAA), to reaffirm the broad scope of the statute and specifically added a non-exhaustive list of medical conditions that would be considered disabilities. The list includes mental health disorders and systemic impairments that had been excluded by some case law addressing the earlier statute. Pennsylvania has addressed the issue in similar fashion through the inclusion of disability discrimination under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (43 P.S. §§ 951-963). The state statute borrows much of the same language of the ADA, and applies to a broader range of employers. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (hereinafter referred to as “PHRA”) also does not have the same caps on damages that exist in the federal statute.
Which employers are covered?
Employers covered by the ADA include all federal, state, and local government entities, as well as private employers with fifteen (15) or more employees. The PHRA covers private employers with four (4) or more employees.
The statutes make it illegal to discriminate against disabled persons in ALL aspects of employment, including recruitment, pay, hiring, firing, promotion, job assignments, benefits, training, and all other employment related activities.
Further, these statutes make it illegal to retaliate against an applicant or employee for asserting their rights under these statutes. It is also illegal to retaliate against any employee who is supportive of disabled individuals in the assertion of their rights.
What persons are protected?
Persons protected under the ADA and PHRA fall into one of three categories. First, persons having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Second, persons who have a history of such an impairment (recurring or transient conditions). The third category would be individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment, possibly dues to some outward appearance.
What is the employer's obligation?
Once the employer has been put on notice of the disability and the need for accommodation, it is the employer's obligation to engage in an interactive process to determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation. The employer does not necessarily have to provide the exact accommodation requested by the disabled employee. However, there is an obligation to explain why the requested accommodation is unreasonable and propose an alternative that accomplishes the same goal. Employers cannot simply deny an accommodation and then refuse to further engage the employee with finding an alternative accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is one that allows the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of the job, without unreasonable cost or significant disruption of the workplace.
Unfortunately, the standard for what is, or is not, a reasonable accommodation is somewhat amorphous. It depends on the job, size of the employer, resources of the employer, and other factors. Types of reasonable accommodation can include modified equipment, job restructuring, modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, service animals, and making the workplace more accessible to persons with disabilities.
The process with an employer can sometimes be difficult to navigate, as there are a number of important terms and obligations that need to be understood. Many employers will push back against such requests, and otherwise fail to properly engage the employee in the interactive process. Certainly, seeking some legal advice at this stage of the process is advisable.
How do I enforce my rights?
If the employer is discriminating or retaliating against the disabled employee, the employee must begin their case by filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). The ADA and PHRA require that an employee exhaust their administrative remedies through one of these agencies before they are able to pursue their case in court. The filing must occur within 180 days of the adverse employment action for the PHRA, and within 300 days for the ADA claim. Ideally you would file under both, so you would want to file within the 180-day period. At the administrative agency stage, a person can file on their own or hire an attorney to handle their case. It is strongly suggested that the individual first get a legal consult before filing on their own, as the agencies' representatives are not able to give legal advice. Understanding what all to include in the agency filing in order to protect all of your rights for federal court is extremely important. It is also important to remember that the agency representatives are not advocates for employees, and any information shared with them may be documented and obtainable at some point by the employer and/or the employer's attorney, by way of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Call an Experienced Attorney
Contacting an experienced Pittsburgh employment law attorney is a wise strategy to learn more about your rights and legal options.
Sean A. Casey, Esq. is skilled at representing clients who have been retaliated against in their workplace, and he can help you obtain justice and compensation for the losses you've incurred as a result of your employer's actions.
Immediately upon consultation, Attorney Casey will assist you in building your case, and he will passionately advocate for your rights each step of the way.
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