Human Resources News & Insights

Good deed punished: Firm didn’t do enough to accommodate scent-sensitive worker

Just how far do employers have to bend to provide a scent-sensitive employee a reasonable accommodation? You won’t believe what a federal judge just ruled.  

Christine Brady was a credit manager for United Refrigeration in Pennsylvania. She told her employer she had a long-term “heightened sensitivity to perfumes, fragrant chemicals and lotions.”

After being under a doctor’s care for some time — and treating her sensitivity through medication — Brady’s condition apparently worsened. She asked United’s HR department “if there is a way to have a fragrance free zone or [if she] could be placed in a fragrance free area.”

The employer responded. Here’s attorney Erric B. Mayer’s rundown of the steps the company took:

  • Purchased a portable air cleaner for use at the plaintiff’s work station
  • Purchased a second portable air cleaner for the plaintiff after she broke the first one
  • Distributed — several times — a notice to all employees not to wear perfume, cologne or aftershave to the office
  • Purchased face masks for the plaintiff (which she later refused to wear)
  • Relocated an employee who had to wear medically-prescribed skin lotion
  • Cleaned a wall panel that plaintiff claimed had fragrances on it
  • Cleaned the rug around the plaintiff’s workstation, and
  • Cleaned the rug around the plaintiff’s workstation — again.

The company also relocated her desk “out of the main stream” and sent her a memo assuring Brady that United “takes your sensitivity seriously.”

But Brady still had a hard time maintaining regular attendance at work. She was finally laid off. In a letter, the firm explained that “… [a]fter what we consider to be extraordinary efforts to accommodate you, you have still not been able to … report to work regularly, which we need you to do. We do not have work available that meets all of your restrictions. Accordingly … you are being laid off.”

And then, of course, she sued. Brady claimed that United’s ban on fragrances wasn’t enforced strictly enough, and that the company violated the ADA by firing her.

Absenteeism as accommodation?

She couldn’t possibly win, right? After all the company did to accommodate her disability?

Well, she won the first round — the court indicated that despite all the steps it took, the company may not have done enough.

The court’s reasoning:

[Brady’s] circumstances do not involve unexplained absences; rather, [her] condition is triggered by stimuli that are at least somewhat within [United’s] power to control. If [United’s] own no-fragrance policies are not being sufficiently administered or enforced, as [Brady] alleges, [United] may have to accept that [Brady] must take some time away from that environment.

Huh? So unless a firm’s policies are perfectly enforced, absenteeism is a reasonable form of accommodation? Pretty tough call for this employer.

Now the company faces an expensive trial or an expensive settlement.

The case is Brady v. United Refrigeration, Inc.

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