Ever since the ADA Amendments Act got passed in January, employers and HR managers have been asking, “So, what does all this mean?” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has finally gotten around to giving some answers.
Last week, the EEOC laid out an explanation of employer responsibilities for following the act (knows as “ADAAA”).
- First, in a key passage, the agency summarized the intent of the act:
“The definition of disability … shall be construed broadly, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA. The focus of an ADA case should be on whether discrimination occurred, not on whether an individual meets the definition of ‘disability.'”
Meaning: Besides broadening the circumstances under which a worker is considered disabled, the act also broadens the circumstances under which a worker can sue for disability discrimination. In other words, if a worker can show that an employer discriminated because of perceived disability — even if the worker wasn’t disabled — the worker has a case against the employer.
- The agency also put into focus some of the broader circumstances that make up a disability:
“An impairment need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, the individual from performing a major life activity in order to be considered a disability.”
Here’s how that differs from earlier rules: Previously, an inability to do the physical requirements of a job wasn’t enough to qualify a worker as disabled. The individual also had to show some limitation in performing “major life activities,” such as walking, eating, etc. The EEOC’s interpretation of the new rules turns all that around to a point that a limitation in doing the specific tasks of a job could be enough to categorize someone as disabled.
The EEOC provides an example:
“Someone with a 20-pound lifting restriction that is not of short-term duration is substantially limited in lifting, and need not also show that he is unable to perform activities of daily living that require lifting in order to be considered substantially limited in lifting.”
Meaning: A long-term limitation on doing a work function is a disability.
- Short-term limits on major life activities now also fall under the definition:
“An impairment may substantially limit a major life activity even if it lasts, or is expected to last, for fewer than six months.”
Meaning: What was considered a “temporary condition” can now be considered a “disability.”
Any good news?
It’s not all bad. The regulations maintain the existing requirement that a worker must be a “qualified individual with a disability.” That means the individual “satisfies the requisite skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements … and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of such position.”
So you still can require applicants and employees to meet essential job requirements, which, for most jobs, include regular and predictable attendance and conformance to the basic standards of performance and behavior.
And even in the case of the employee with a 20-pound lifting restriction, yes, that person may be disabled, but you still can disqualify the person because lifting is an essential part of the job and no reasonable accommodation is available.
As for the temporary part (“fewer than six months”) of the regs, the EEOC recognizes that not all temporary conditions are disabilities:
“Temporary, non-chronic impairments of short duration . . . such as the common cold, seasonal or common influenza, a sprained joint, minor or non-chronic gastrointestinal disorders, or a broken bone that is expected to heal completely” generally are not disabilities.