Friday, February 17, 2017

Smells like a Lawsuit . . . Odor Sensitivity under the ADA


An Illinois federal judge has rejected an employee’s disability discrimination lawsuit, in which the employee claimed her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her odor sensitivity as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  While employers have a legal duty to reasonably accommodate such a disability, this case highlights that there is a limit.
As noted in the U.S. District Court’s opinion in Alanis v. Metra, Plaintiff Elda Alanis had worked for the company for approximately ten years, when she experienced difficulty breathing in the workplace, and claimed not to be able to speak, and would only communicate via text message or on handwritten notes. 
Alanis took FMLA leave and following a psychological evaluation, ultimately returned to the workplace with a diagnosis of fragrance sensitivity.  Among Alanis’s multiple accommodation requests was for “a fragrance-free workplace.” 
 In response, the company agreed to take actions to reduce workplace odors, which included changing the cleaning solutions in the restrooms, instructing staff to use only the approved cleaning solutions, instructing staff to refrain from wearing strong fragrances, and moving Alanis’s workspace to a cubicle farther away from the refrigerator and microwave (one source of the odors she was complaining about). Alanis also was instructed to promptly notify the company if any other fragrance issues arose.  The company also granted Alanis’s requests for a relaxed dress code, not having to talk while symptomatic, and rest breaks away from her work station, but did not agree to all the accommodations sought by Alanis. 
 In dismissing Alanis’s ADA failure to accommodate claim, the District Court noted that the ADA only requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee’s limitations, and employer are not required to provide the particular accommodation that an employee requests. Instead, the employer may choose what accommodation to provide, so long as it effectively accommodates the employee’s limitations.  The District Court held the company’s accommodations in regard to Alanis were reasonable:
 
Once Metra learned that the changes it made to accommodate Alanis did not eliminate her symptoms, Metra invited Alanis to notify it of any odor issues contemporaneously so that the source could be investigated. When Alanis did report an issue, Thomas intervened on Alanis’s behalf and reminded the relevant staff member of the fragrance-free workplace requirement. The record shows that Metra made reasonable efforts to provide (and police where necessary) the accommodations it agreed to provide Alanis. That Metra could not guarantee a fragrance-free environment for Alanis does not constitute an adverse action

The District Court’s ruling is line with similar cases around the county in which ADA claims were dismissed because a an employee’s request for a fragrance-free or odorless workplace was held to be unreasonable and not feasible.
Fragrance or odor sensitivity clearly qualifies as disability.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes the position that under the ADA, an employee may be disabled if a workplace odor causes asthma or causes an otherwise normal reaction or allergy to become severe.  Finding a reasonable and realistic accommodation is best accomplished through engaging in an interactive discussion with the employee. 
·         Depending on the position and job responsibilities, allowing the employee to telecommute or work from home might be a reasonable accommodation.
·         For employees who are sensitive to certain workplace odors, changing their workplace/office locations to an area of less exposure could be a reasonable accommodation. Workplace odors triggering a medical condition also may be more generalized, such as the odors from copy machines or printers or from cleaning products.
·         A perfume/cologne free policy can be a reasonable accommodation. While other employees may find it unreasonable, wearing perfume or cologne in the workplace is not a protected right.






Wednesday, January 4, 2017

THE $300,000 FLU SHOT


While getting a flu shot may result in a temporarily sore arm, a Pennsylvania hospital is feeling some significant financial pain in its bank account after settling a lawsuit over its mandatory flu shot policy. 
As first reported here back in October 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed lawsuits nationwide against healthcare facilities which require that their employees receive seasonal flu vaccines.  The EEOC’s position is that such policies violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) by failing to accommodate the religious beliefs of healthcare employees.
 
As previously reported, one of the hospitals being sued by the EEOC was Pennsylvania-based Saint Vincent Health Center.  On December 23, 2016, Saint Vincent agreed to settle the EEOC lawsuit for $300,000, which includes back pay and compensatory damages to six former employees who were fired for failing to comply with the hospital’s policy.  The settlement also requires offers of reinstatement to the six employees, and includes a consent decree requiring injunctive relief.
To recap the facts of the lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that in October 2013, Saint Vincent implemented a mandatory seasonal flu vaccination requirement for its employees unless they were granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Under the policy, employees who received an exemption were required to wear a face mask while having patient contact during flu season in lieu of receiving the vaccination. Employees who refused the vaccine but were not granted an exemption by the Health Center were fired. 

From October 2013 to January 2014, the six employees identified in the EEOC’s lawsuit t requested religious exemptions from the flu vaccination requirement based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and the Health Center denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, they were terminated. In its lawsuit, the EEOC stressed that during the same period, the hospital granted fourteen (14) vaccination exemption requests based on medical reasons while denying all religion-based exemption requests.

Under the consent decree, if Saint Vincent chooses to require employee influenza vaccination as a condition of employment, it must grant exemptions from that requirement to all employees with sincerely held religious beliefs who request exemption from the vaccination on religious grounds unless such exemption poses an undue hardship on the Health Center's operations, and it must also notify employees of their right to request religious exemption and establish appropriate procedures for considering any such accommodation requests.
The decree also requires that when considering requests for religious accommodation, the Health Center must adhere to the definition of "religion" established by Title VII and controlling federal court decisions, a definition that forbids employers from rejecting accommodation requests based on their disagreement with an employee's belief; their opinion that the belief is unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent in some way; or their conclusion that an employee's belief is not an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any particular religion or denomination. The decree further requires that Saint Vincent provide training regarding Title VII reasonable accommodation to its key personnel and that it maintain reasonable accommodation policies and accommodation request procedures that reflect Title VII requirements.

Does this mean mandatory vaccination policies at healthcare facilities are prohibited?  According to the EEOC’s Philadelphia District regional attorney, Debra M. Lawrence:
While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer's Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion.  In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer's operations.

However, reasonably accommodating healthcare employees who have direct contact with patients may be easier said than done.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu is highly contagious and people with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose. 
While the effects of the flu on most people are not life-threatening, the CDCP notes that severe cases of the flu can result in death for some people, such as the elderly, young children, and persons with certain health conditions, including weakened immune systems.  The consent decree does allow Saint Vincent to adopt on-the-job precautions to avoid the transmission of the flu to its patients by employees who have been granted a religious exemption.