Updated March 24, 2011: EEOC issues final ADAAA regulations
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities who are qualified for a job. The ADA covers all private employers with 15 or more employees and covers state and local governments, regardless of the number of employees.
On September 25, 2008, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law and made significant changes regarding which employees and job applicants are considered disabled and protected from discrimination. In March 2011, more than two years after the ADAAA went into effect, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued long-awaited final regulations interpreting the law’s requirements. For the most part, the final regulations provide exactly the type of comprehensive guidance employers were hoping for, and they are a dramatic departure from the proposed regulations the EEOC issued in September 2009. Read the final ADA regs.
Basically, the ADA gives people with disabilities a level playing field in the areas of employment and public accommodations. For employers, that means they can’t take an applicant’s disabilities into account when deciding whether to hire him or in other areas of employment, and businesses may have to help a disabled worker do his job once he is on board.
The ADA also imposes a requirement on the employer to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for the known disabilities of applicants and employees, as long as that accommodation does not cause an undue hardship to its business. Many states also have laws regarding disability discrimination in the workplace that may be stricter than federal laws.
State-by-state comparison of 50 employment laws in all 50 states, including discrimination
Definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and ADAAA
The ADA protects qualified employees and applicants with disabilities from discrimination by employers. (In general, individuals are “qualified” if they can perform the essential functions of a job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation.) The ADA requires a covered employer to make reasonable accommodations to allow a disabled individual to perform the essential functions of his job.
To be protected, an employee must establish that he is disabled within the meaning of the statute, and not every illness or ailment qualifies as a “disability” under the ADA. Individuals are considered to be disabled under the ADA if:
- they are actually disabled (i.e., they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities);
- they have a record of a disability (i.e., they had an actual disability in the past but are no longer disabled); or
- their employer regards them as being disabled.
The ADAAA provides that the term “substantially limits” must be interpreted consistently with the “findings and purposes” of the ADAAA, and the ADAAA final regulations provide some helpful rules of construction regarding the term. Those findings and purposes are provided as a list of general and specific requirements at the beginning of the ADAAA, which champion a less demanding standard than under the ADA. The ADAAA also clarifies that it is to be construed “in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this Act, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this Act.”
The ADAAA provides an extensive list of those tasks that constitute “major life activities,” including physical tasks such as walking, standing, and lifting; mental tasks such as learning, reading, and thinking; and even the operation of major bodily functions, such as immune system function, cell growth, and reproductive function. The final regulations also make clear that whether something is a major life activity is to be interpreted very expansively, and the fact that a particular activity is left out of the statute or regulations doesn’t preclude it from being a major life activity.
Accommodations for employees and applicants with disabilities
Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for all qualified individuals with a disability unless doing so would cause the business an undue hardship. Because the standard is high, most employers will have trouble proving that an accommodation causes such a hardship.
Employers should note that granting extended leave to an employee is considered a form of reasonable accommodation. Thus, even if the employee has used up his sick leave, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, and vacation leave, it still may need to grant additional leave for employees with disabilities.
HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination and the ADA
What happens when an employee files a disability discrimination charge with the EEOC?
As with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee first must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing a complaint alleging an ADA violation against his employer. Employees (or the EEOC) can sue for lost wages, benefits, reinstatement, and attorneys’ fees. An employer may be liable for capped compensatory damages as well as punitive damages if the court finds intentional discrimination.