Tighten Employment Disability Risk Management As Obama Declares 12/10 National Disability Employment Awareness Month


President Obama’s declaration today (October 1, 2012) of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month reminds business that U.S. businesses and their leaders need to tighten their disability discrimination risk management and compliance in light of the Obama Administration’s emphasis on aggressively interpreting and enforcing disability discrimination laws, rising private plaintiff lawsuits and other recent regulatory and judicial changes.

In his proclaimation today, President Obama reaffirmed his often stated commitment to the aggressive enforcement of disability laws and other efforts to promote opportunities for disabled individuals, stating:

“[My Administration remains committed to helping our businesses, schools, and communities support our entire workforce. To meet this challenge,… we are striving to make it easier to get and keep those jobs by improving compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

As the administration marks the month, U.S. employers and other business leaders can expect the Obama Administration will be stepping up its already aggressive outreach to disabled Americans to promote awareness of their disability law rights and tools for asserting and enforcing these rights.

Business Faces Growing Employment Disability Exposures

As part of his administration’s commitment, the Obama Administration has moved to aggressively enforce the disability and accommodations of teh Americans With Disabilities Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other federal disability discrimination laws.  The reach and effectiveness of these efforts has been enhanced by statutory and regulatory changes that require employers to exercise greater efforts to meet their compliance obligations and manage their disability and other discrimination risks.

ADA Exposures Heightened

The ADA, for instance, generally prohibits disability discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as this does not pose an undue hardship.  Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability. Violations of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits.  Employees or applicants that can prove they were subjected to prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).   

In recent years, amendments to the original provisions of the ADA have made it easier for plaintiffs and the EEOC to establish disabled status of an individual.  Businesses should exercise caution to carefully document legitimate business justification for their hiring, promotion and other employment related decisions about these and other individuals who might qualify as disabled.  Provisions of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) that expand the definition of “disability” under the ADA,  As signed into law on September 25, 2008, the ADAAA amended the definition of “disability” for purposes of the disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that that has a disability within the meaning of the ADA.  The ADAAA retains the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, provisions of the ADAAA that took effect January 1, 2009 change the way that these statutory terms should be interpreted in several ways. Most significantly, the Act:

  • Directs EEOC to revise that portion of its regulations defining the term “substantially limits;”
  • Expands the definition of “major life activities” by including two non-exhaustive lists: (1) The first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating); and (2) The second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”);
  • States that mitigating measures other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
  • Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  • Changes the definition of “regarded as” so that it no longer requires a showing that the employer perceived the individual to be substantially limited in a major life activity, and instead says that an applicant or employee is “regarded as” disabled if he or she is subject to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire or termination) based on an impairment that is not transitory and minor; and
  • Provides that individuals covered only under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.

The ADAAA also emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis.In adopting these changes, Congress expressly sought to overrule existing employer-friendly judicial precedent construing the current provisions of the ADA and to require the EEOC to update its existing guidance to confirm with the ADAAA Amendments.  Under the leadership of the Obama Administration, the EEOC and other federal agencies have embraced this charge and have sigificantly stepped up enforcement of the ADA and other federal discrimination laws.

Recent enforcement, regulatory and other activities by the EEOC demonstrate that the EEOC is enthusiastically moving forward to exercise its regulatory and enforcement powers under these enhanced ADA provisions to tighten requirements for employers and to enforce its rules. See e.g.,  Leprino Foods To Pay $550K To Settle OFCCP Charge Pre-Hire Screening Test Illegally Discriminated « As EEOC Steps Up ADA Accommodation Enforcement, New DOD Apple App, Other Resources Released; Wal-Mart Settlement Shows ADA Risks When Considering Employee Return To Work Accommodation Requests & Inquiries; Employer Pays $475,000 To Settle ADA Discrimination Lawsuit Challenging Medical Fitness Testing For EMTs, Firefighters & Other Public Safety Worker’s.

Rehabilitation Act Risks For Government Contractors

Beyond the generally applicable risks applicable to all employers of more than 15 employees under the ADA, federal and state government contractors face additional responsibilities and risks. 

Subject to limited exceptions, government contractors providing services or supplies on ARRA or other government funded contracts or projects must comply both with generally applicable employment discrimination requirements and special statutory and contractual nondiscrimination, affirmative action, and recordkeeping requirements applicable government contractors. For instance, federal law generally requires government contractors to comply with the special equal employment opportunity requirements of  Executive Order 11246 (EO 11246); Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 503); and the Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA).   Pursuant to these laws, business with the federal government, both contractors and subcontractors, generally must follow a number of statutory and contractual requirements to follow the fair and reasonable standard that they not discriminate in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability or status as a protected veteran. OFCCP generally audits and enforces these requirements. Memo to Funding Recipients: Compliance with Applicable Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Statutes, Regulations, and Executive Orders.  

OFCCP has made clear that it will conduct compliance evaluations and host compliance assistance events to ensure that federal contractors comply and are aware of their responsibilities under EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA. 

While many government contractors may be tempted to become complacent about OFCCP exposures based on reports of the OFCCP’s relatively low enforcement in the past, see Report Says OFCCP Enforcement Data Show Infrequent Veteran, Disability Bias Findings | Bloomberg BNA recent enforcement data documents OFCCP is getting much more serious and aggressive about auditing and enforcing compliance with its affirmative action and other requirements against government contractors under the Obama Administration.  See, OFCCP Enforcement Data is Available on a New DOL Website. See also, Affirmative Action Update: OFCCP Enforcement Statistics Show Increase in Violations.  The readiness of OFCCP to enforce its rules is illustrated by the settlement of an OFCCP action filed against federal contractor Nash Finch Co. (Nash Finch) announceed last week.  Under the settlement, Nash Finch to pay $188,500 in back wages and interest and offer jobs to certain women applicants who OFCCP charged Nash rejected for the entry-level position of order selector at the company’s distribution facility in Lumberton, Minnesota.  See Settlement of OFCCP Employment Discrimination Charge Reminder To ARRA, Other Government Contractors Of Heightened Enforcement Risks.

These government contractor disability discrimination risks are particularly acute where the government contractor works on or provides supplies on contacts or projects funded in whole or in part by monies provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA”).    When the contract or project in question receives any funding out of the $787 billion of stimulus funding provided by ARRA, special OFCCP rules applicable to ARRA funded projects necessitates that federal contractors exercise special care to understand and meet their responsibilities and manage associated exposures.   See, e.g. Settlement of OFCCP Employment Discrimination Charge Reminder To ARRA, Other Government Contractors Of Heightened Enforcement Risks

Businesses Should Act To Manage Risks

The ADAAA amendments, the Rehabilitation Act’s expanded reach, and the Obama Administration’s emphasis on enforcement make it likely that businesses generally will face more disability claims from a broader range of employees and will possess fewer legal shields to defend themselves against these claims. These changes will make it easier for certain employees to qualify and claim protection as disabled under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other disability discrimination laws. 

In light of these and other developments and risks, businesses generally should act cautiously when dealing with applicants or employees with actual, perceived, or claimed physical or mental impairments to minimize exposures under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and other laws.  Management should exercise caution to carefully and appropriate the potential legal significance of physical or mental impairments or conditions that might be less significant in severity or scope, correctable through the use of eyeglasses, hearing aids, daily medications or other adaptive devices, or that otherwise have been assumed by management to fall outside the ADA’s scope.  

Likewise, businesses should be prepared for the EEOC, OFCCP and the courts to treat a broader range of disabilities, including those much more limited in severity and life activity restriction, to qualify as disabling for purposes of the Act. Businesses should assume that a greater number of employees with such conditions are likely to seek to use the ADA as a basis for challenging hiring, promotion and other employment decisions.  For this reason, businesses generally should tighten job performance and other employment recordkeeping to enhance their ability to demonstrate nondiscriminatory business justifications for the employment decisions made by the businesses.

Businesses also should consider tightening their documentation regarding their procedures and processes governing the  collection and handling records and communications that may contain information regarding an applicant’s physical or mental impairment, such as medical absences, worker’s compensation claims, emergency information, or other records containing health status or condition related information.  The ADA generally requires that these records be maintained in separate confidential files and disclosed only to individuals with a need to know under circumstances allowed by the ADA. 

As part of this process, businesses also should carefully review their employment records, group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies and practices to comply with, and manage exposure under the new genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy rules enacted as part of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) signed into law by President Bush on May 21, 2008.  Effective November 21, 2009, Title VII of GINA amends the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination based on genetic information and restricts the ability of employers and their health plans to require, collect or retain certain genetic information. Under GINA, employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees face significant liability for violating the sweeping nondiscrimination and confidentiality requirements of GINA concerning their use, maintenance and disclosure of genetic information. Employees can sue for damages and other relief like currently available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other nondiscrimination laws.  For instance, GINA’s employment related provisions include rules that will:

  • Prohibit employers and employment agencies from discriminating based on genetic information in hiring, termination or referral decisions or in other decisions regarding compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment;
  • Prohibit employers and employment agencies from limiting, segregating or classifying employees so as to deny employment opportunities to an employee based on genetic information;
  • Bar labor organizations from excluding, expelling or otherwise discriminating against individuals based on genetic information;
  • Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information of an employee or an employee’s family member except as allowed by GINA to satisfy certification requirements of family and medical leave laws, to monitor the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace or other conditions specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Prohibit employers, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from discriminating in any decisions related to admission or employment in training or retraining programs, including apprenticeships based on genetic information;
  • Mandate that in the narrow situations where limited cases where genetic information is obtained by a covered entity, it maintain the information on separate forms in separate medical files, treat the information as a confidential medical record, and not disclosure the genetic information except in those situations specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Prohibit any person from retaliating against an individual for opposing an act or practice made unlawful by GINA; and
  • Regulate the collection, use, access and disclosure of genetic information by employer sponsored and certain other health plans.

These employment provisions of GINA are in addition to amendments to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act that are effective for group health plan for plan years beginning after May 20, 2009.

If you have any questions or need help reviewing and updating your organization’s employment and/or employee practices in response to the Rehabilitation Act, ADA, GINA or other applicable laws, or if we may be of assistance with regard to any other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Board Certified Labor and Employment Attorney and Management Consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at 469..

About The Author

Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to achieve their business and operational objectives and manage legal, operational and other risks. Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, with more than 25 years human resource, employee benefits and management experience, Ms. Stamer helps businesses manage their people-related risks and the performance of their internal and external workforce though appropriate human resources, employee benefit, worker’s compensation, insurance, outsourcing and risk management strategies domestically and internationally. Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker, who regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefit, human resources, internal controls and other related risk management matters.  Her writings frequently are published by the American Bar Association (ABA), Aspen Publishers, Bureau of National Affairs, the American Health Lawyers Association, SHRM, World At Work, Government Institutes, Inc., Atlantic Information Services, Employee Benefit News, and many others. For a listing of some of these publications and programs, see here. Her insights on human resources risk management matters also have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications. Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit and Other Compensation Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and the Legislative Chair of the Dallas Human Resources Management Association Government Affairs Committee, she also serves in leadership positions in numerous human resources, corporate compliance, and other professional and civic organizations. For more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer, information about workshops and other training, selected publications and other human resources related information, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 214.270.2402 or via e-mail here.

Other Helpful Resources & Other Information

If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in one or more of the following other recent articles published in this electronic Solutions Law publication available for review here including:

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©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other  rights reserved. 

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