Reasonable Accommodations at the Job Site
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
Bernadette Jentsch, Workplace Justice Project, MFY Legal Services, Inc. & Jeanette Zelhof, Esq.
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Answered ByBernadette Jentsch , Workplace Justice Project, MFY Legal Services, Inc., and edited by Jeanette Zelhof, Senior Attorney, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
Question: I have worked for my current company for three years...a political situation arose and I ended up having to go to a partner for help...I became severely depressed and....Now I am on five [medications], plus two additional for the acid reflux...I requested an accommodation....What legal rights do I have after my health has been severely compromised by the stress of my workplace environment? If I cannot receive the accommodation I asked for I will have to leave the company. Can I receive any severance for the stress that I have endured here that has made me sick? Can I somehow work out a deal with the company to receive unemployment insurance until I find a new job? What are my options?
Response: It sounds like your job suffers from poor management and favoritism. You indicate that although the stressful work environment has taken its toll on your health and well-being, you have managed to stay in the company for a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, under New York State law there is little that a non-unionized private sector employee can do besides what you’ve already done.
Based on the facts in your letter, it does not appear that you are being singled out for discriminatory treatment based on your disability. However, since you have requested an accommodation, your employer is entitled to ask you for more information about the disability to determine if you meet the legal requirements under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). There must be a nexus between your disability and the accommodation you are seeking, and your employer may require documentation—but only that needed to establish you have an ADA-covered disability and that the disability necessitates the accommodation. You will have to make a decision whether to disclose this information if you wish to pursue your request.
Under the ADA, an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation (i.e., a change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities) to an employee who is a qualified individual with disabilities unless to do so would cause undue hardship (i.e., it would be unduly costly, extensive, substantial or disruptive, or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the employer’s business).
A qualified individual with disabilities is a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The ADA also protects those with a history of a disability, or those who an employer believes has a disability. A “substantial” impairment is one that significantly limits or restricts a major life activity such as hearing, seeing, speaking, breathing, performing manual tasks, walking, caring for oneself, learning or working. In addition to meeting the definition of disability above, a person must also be qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation.
Alternatively, you might consider transferring internally to a different position or getting a different job elsewhere. You may want to look for a civil service or unionized position, and in a better-managed workplace. If you decide to job hunt, don’t leave your present job until you find a new one.
With respect to whether you are entitled to severance pay, check with the Human Resources Department to see if they have a written employee handbook which sets forth your rights. Although employers are not required by law to offer any severance unless it is in their employee handbook, many employers will consider a request for a week of severance for every year you worked there as reasonable. If your employer brings up severance when discussing your request for an accommodation, you can try and negotiate enough severance to give you time to find a new job.
If you decide the job is too stressful and you take a severance package to leave or just quit, it will be considered a voluntary quit for unemployment insurance purposes and you will not qualify for unemployment benefits. However, if you can establish that your medical condition was “good cause” for leaving the job and you are ready, willing and able to work elsewhere, you may qualify. If you choose to take this route, you will need to produce medical records showing that a doctor advised you to leave your job for health reasons. This is difficult to prove so you should obtain legal representation in your claim.
Remember to do your homework before you leave any job—can you get another job with less stress and the same or better wages? If the answer is no, then it is worth trying to lower your stress response and stay in the job. Good Luck!
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