accommodating disabilities

Digital On Air sign, indicating broadcastingOn Fox’s entertainment industry-focused Pay or Play blog, associate Laurie Baddon wrote a post covering recent reports on employment agreements signed by news anchors working at television stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. Laurie breaks down the controversial elements of the agreements, and examines them in the context of California employment law.

To get a better sense of the legal aspects of this national news story, we invite you to read Laurie’s post on Pay or Play.

Just over a month ago, I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar entitled: “2017 Update: Accommodating Employees With Disabilities.” You can download the slides from my presentation. There were over a hundred attendees (mostly HR professionals) and I wasn’t able to answer everyone’s questions. Since other readers of this blog may have similar questions, let me answer them now.

  • Q: If an employee needs a reasonable accommodation to work reduced hours (under 30 hours/week), are we required to keep them on our company-sponsored group benefit plans since the contract with our benefit providers states employees working a minimum of 30 hours/week are eligible to participate in the company-sponsored group insurance plans?
    A: No. An employee receiving a part-time schedule as a reasonable accommodation is entitled only to those benefits that other part-time employees receive. But if they lose medical coverage because of reduced hours, they may be entitled to continue benefits at group rates at their own expense pursuant to COBRA (for employers with 20 or more employees) or, if you’re in California, Cal COBRA (for two to 19 employees). Your benefits provider can give you details on the notice.
  • Q: Does a doctor’s note have to include a specific diagnosis of a certain condition? What if it is a chiropractor treating neck & shoulder pain. Is that a condition? Do they need to be more specific?
    A: No. If the need for accommodation is not obvious, and the applicant or employee hasn’t already provided “reasonable medical documentation confirming the existence of the disability and the need for accommodation,” the employer can require a doctor’s note addressing those issues. However, employers aren’t entitled to (and have no need to know) the specific diagnosis.
  • Q: What if the doctor says to provide an ergonomic chair and we already do that and the employee just doesn’t like the chair?
    A: Employees aren’t entitled to the accommodation of their choice. If the accommodation you offer (in this case, the chair) is adequate to accommodate the employee, you’ve met your obligations.
  • Q: Do we have to pay for parking that is closer when someone has a broken leg?
    A: This is a developing area of the law. Most courts have held that employers are not required to assist a disabled employee with getting to work. However, some courts have made exceptions, such as when an employee was able to get himself to work without assistance, but the employer transferred the employee to a location that is harder to get to because of a disability. If you’re not paying for other employees’ parking, I don’t see why you would have to pay for this one’s. But again, this is an unsettled area and the answer may depend on what jurisdiction you’re in.

I’ll be speaking on disability law again on December 4, 2017 – this time in a presentation intended for lawyers – at the Bar Association of San Francisco 2017 Disability Law Update. Krista Stone-Manista of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP will provide the plaintiff’s perspective and I’ll provide the defense perspective on the last year’s developments in this area of law. You can get details, register for the event, or register for the webcast here.

The obligations to reasonably accommodate disabled workers and to engage them in the interactive process make this a unique area of law. If you practice in this area (or hope to), this is a great way to learn about the last year’s developments. See you there!