This company found itself in a jam when one of its maintenance staff received an odd workplace restriction from her doctor.
Cynthia Horn worked as a janitor for Knight Facilities. She was required, among other things, to clean restrooms, floors, counters and windows, as well as mix water with detergents or acids to prepare cleaning solutions.
Standard stuff for any janitor, no? Two years into her work, however, those duties became an issue when Horn developed a sensitivity to cleaning chemicals.
Complaining that her lungs and throat were burning, Horn visited a doctor, who diagnosed her with pneumonitis and mild hypoxia and recommended she miss work for a week and wear a mask when cleaning bathrooms.
Couldn’t even be exposed to chemicals
Horn returned to work, and Knight Facilities limited Horn’s exposure to cleaning chemicals per her doctor’s orders. Two hours into the workday, however, Horn’s symptoms returned.
Horn’s doctor released her a second time with the following restriction: “no exposure to cleaning solutions.”
Knight Facilities’ HR manager contacted Horn’s doctor and explained it had no work available for Horn within that restriction. HR asked the doctor to review a cleaning solution fact sheet that detailed the exposure limit of each chemical Horn was exposed to to see if there was any leeway. The doctor’s recommendation didn’t change: Horn should “be away from [the cleaning solutions] altogether.”
The HR manager met with the company’s VP of HR to discuss the restriction. The conclusion: There was no work for Horn available at any of Knight Facilities’ locations, regardless of task, because the cleaning solutions are airborne.
A stellar interactive dialogue
The HR manager told Horn there was no work available within the restrictions — but Horn wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
She wrote several letters and emails asking Knight Facilities to either:
- eliminate bathrooms on her cleaning route, or
- allow her to wear a respirator while on the job.
Horn then talked to the president of her local union, who spoke to Knight Facilities on Horn’s behalf.
Knight Facilities participated in the discussions but ultimately determined that there were (still) no open positions for Horn.
Knight Facilities also refused to allow Horn to work her current route using a respirator, concluding that the use of a respirator didn’t actually meet Horn’s restriction and, even if it did, it would cause an undue hardship because the company would have to buy respirators for all of the other janitors.
Therefore, Knight Facilities fired Horn.
Employee and doctor didn’t agree
As you can guess, Horn sued, claiming Knight Facilities failed to accommodation her disability.
Nice try, said the court.
Horn couldn’t perform the essential functions of her job even with a reasonable accommodation, the court said.
Both of Horn’s suggested accommodations failed to comply with her doctor’s restrictions:
- Taking bathrooms off of Horn’s rotation wouldn’t fix anything as she’d still be exposed to the chemicals in the air, and
- Working with a respirator on wouldn’t have prevented all exposure to cleaning chemicals, including using or touching them. Horn’s personal belief that she could handle cleaning solutions as long as she was wearing a respirator was irrelevant.
Point to Knight Facilities.
What’s to be learned from this case? Kelly Petrocelli with Barnes & Thornburg’s Current blog suggested the following:
- If you have a question about an employee’s work restriction, follow this company’s lead and get it clarified by the doctor, and
- Employees may suggest accommodations that don’t align with their doctor’s restrictions. While it’s crucial to engage in the interactive process, base your final decisions around the restrictions mandated by the doctor — and not on employee’s ideas.
The case is Horn v. Knight Facilities Management-GM, Inc.