This post is part of a series sponsored by IAT Insurance Group.
Workplace disability claims were the most commonly reported type of discrimination in 2020, with 24,324 claims filed. During that year alone, companies within the United States paid out $120 million in disability discrimination claims.
The challenge is that this type of discrimination isn’t always as obvious as you think.
For example, an auto dealership worker disclosed her need for handicap parking to her new employer during onboarding. The dealership took care of this but failed to be proactive beyond onboarding in asking if she needed additional accommodations. Months later, when the dealership fired her for poor performance, she sued them because of this lack of proactivity, a key feature of employer onus under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In another case, a company disbanded a department and then changed its mind, inadvertently rehiring everyone but the woman on maternity leave. Though they didn’t intend to discriminate against her, that’s how it appeared. Ultimately, they settled out of court, but had the case gone to trial, the award could have easily been 10X the settlement.
5 tips to reduce your risk of a disability discrimination claim
While claims of disability discrimination loom large for unknowing businesses, there are five things you can do to reduce your risk.
1. Know the ADA requires an interactive process.
Best practices requires more than just accommodating employees with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires companies to engage in an interactive process with disabled employees, periodically checking in with them to ensure accommodations are working and adjust if necessary.
TIP: This national rule applies across states, so consider having a champion from your human resources department who can lead the process for disability requests. If you don’t have an HR person, consider outsourcing the task.
2. Be flexible with rules.
Companies that are rigid with their rules can get burned in disability discrimination lawsuits.
For example, Walmart was hit with a $100 million verdict last year because they wouldn’t change the work schedule of an employee with Down Syndrome to accommodate her bus schedule. Walmart was so focused on their shift assignment rules that they didn’t respond to a reasonable request from someone with a disability, and it cost them $125 million.
TIP: Adapt company rules to meet a disabled person’s needs whenever possible and document these conversations to reduce ambiguity.
3. Know the rules for disability disclosure.
Sometimes making an accommodation for a disability requires making others aware of the issue. However, there are discretionary rules about who you can tell and how much they can know.
Start by asking yourself who needs to know, and how much they need to know. Perhaps only a direct supervisor needs to know the details. Other employees may not need to know anything, or perhaps they’ll know the team member needs accommodation but not any details.
Once you decide the minimum amount of information that can be shared to grant the accommodation, and who it must be shared with, it’s time to talk to the requesting employee. Ask permission to share that information and explain why it’s necessary. Once you get permission, you can move forward with the accommodation.
TIP: Discretion is essential and not every disability is obvious. Hidden disabilities may also require accommodation. As you listen to your employees, try to pick up on non-verbal cues that may indicate the employee needs additional accommodations.
4. Document your interactive process.
Most companies understand that it’s important to document certain processes, like corrective action. However, they often overlook documenting an employee-related issue such as a disability accommodation process.
Because the law requires an interactive process for disability accommodation, it’s important to document every step within the accommodation process, including all conversations about the concern.
TIP: Have a clearly documented disability accommodation process and ensure everyone follows it. Document and date all conversations with employees and accommodations made.
5. Check with a lawyer before terminating.
If you need to terminate someone with a disclosed disability, tread carefully. That doesn’t mean you can’t release them, but you might need to be more diligent about documenting your reasoning. You also need to prove that you fully accommodated the individual’s disability.
Organizations should also consider the timing of the termination related to the disability disclosure. If they are close together, there’s a higher risk you will face a lawsuit. Consider hiring a temp worker to fill a gap if someone is on extended leave, for example, instead of firing them to hire a new employee.
TIP: Consult with a lawyer before terminating a disabled employee. They can help cover all bases.
Is your company properly protected against the ADA risks you face? Contact a member of the IAT team today.
By Tom Rizzuto and Angela Roberts
 U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission “Charge Statistics (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 1997 Through FY 2021,” 2022.
 The Guardian “Walmart told to pay woman with Down’s syndrome $125m for unfair dismissal,” July 2021.
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