A December 2016 publication from the EEOC titled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights” doesn’t exactly break new ground. It does, however, highlight issues that arise repeatedly in disability discrimination cases and, therefore, bear repeating. Here are the key takeaways:
- The definition of what constitutes a disability is broader than many realize. The guidance tells employees: “You can get a reasonable accommodation for any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, ‘substantially limit’ your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other ‘major life activity.'” That’s the EEOC’s standard. California’s is even broader.
- As the guidance warns, employers deciding whether someone can perform the essential functions of a position or whether they pose a significant risk to others may not rely on “myths or stereotypes.” Instead, employers must base those decisions on objective evidence.
- Employers trying to gather objective evidence face conflicting obligations. On one hand, they need to understand the employee’s limitations so that they can make an informed decision on offering an accommodation. On the other, they are limited in terms of what they can ask by the employee’s privacy rights. The guidance cautions employees that they may need to disclose information concerning a mental condition when seeking a reasonable accommodation. A publication issued contemporaneously, “The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work,” informs healthcare providers that they also may need to make certain disclosures, provided that they have their patients’ written authorization. In light of these conflicting obligations, employers should focus on the employee’s specific limitations, rather than their underlying cause or diagnosis. Employers also need to ensure that any medical information they do receive is kept confidential.
- The way to gather objective evidence on an employee’s limitations and possible accommodations is through the interactive process. Employers need to engage their workers in a frank discussion of the essential functions of the position, whether the employee can perform those essential functions, and what accommodations may be available. I discuss what the interactive process requires in more detail here.
- Flexibility is key. The employer must be open to different accommodations that may enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. (Here’s a list of possible accommodations.) If a particular accommodation turns out to be ineffective, the employer must consider alternatives. If no accommodation will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the position, the employer must consider moving the employee to other available positions or placing the employee on an unpaid leave. Considering the employee for other open positions requires more than telling them to apply for whatever interests them. In California, it requires giving the employee “preferential consideration.”
- Employers only need to offer a leave of absence if it will help the employee get to a point where he or she can return to work in some capacity. Also, employers don’t have to grant indefinite leaves.
- “An employer doesn’t have to hire or keep people in jobs they can’t perform.” That encouraging statement comes straight from the EEOC’s guidance. It also cautions employees that “an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.”
This remains one of the more complicated areas of employment law. Employers that don’t understand the extent of their obligations expose themselves to costly litigation and government investigations.