When is a medical condition serious enough to qualify as a disability? It’s one of the toughest questions HR has to answer — and setting the bar too high can wind up getting a company dragged into court.
Here’s what happened in one recent case:
While at work, an employee developed a respiratory condition. Her symptoms included trouble breathing, a bad cough, migraines and nausea.
The cause: perfume worn by a co-worker who sat nearby. The employee suffered from a “sensitivity to perfumes, chemicals and other scented objects.”
She told her manager about the problem and asked that something be done so she could continue working. One of her suggestions was relocating either her or the co-worker to another part of the building. She also provided an example of a policy banning strong perfumes in the workplace.
The manager’s response: “If you’re allergic to perfumes, it’s your problem, not the company’s.”
No action was taken, and the employee sued, claiming the company failed to accommodate her disability.
The court ruled in her favor. First, the judge ruled the woman’s sensitivity substantially limited her major life activities, and was therefore a disability under the ADA.
And, the court decided, several reasonable accommodations were available, including relocation and the policy suggested by the employee. By not using one of those suggestions, or even searching for another option, the company failed to meet its legal obligations.
Cite: McBride v. The City of Detroit