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Expert Employers: Absenteeism & the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

For decades, employers enjoyed very wide latitude in disciplining and firing employees for attendance problems, even if the absenteeism was the result of illness or injury. The latitude has been significantly altered since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Let’s explore the some of the policy implications of the civil rights law play out in the workplace. Don’t forget the ADA applies to nonprofit employers too, and non-compliance is not an option!

ADA Coverage

The ADA protects only “qualified individuals with a disability.” Disabilities as defined under the ADA can mean either physical or mental impairment that substantially limit one or more major life activities. It can also mean an individual who has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.

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A qualified individual must be able to perform essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. What’s a reasonable accommodation? It may include the following (but is certainly not limited to):

  • Making existing employee facilities readily accessible for use by persons with disabilities
  • Modifications to work schedule
  • Job restructuring
  • Appropriate reassignment to a vacant position
  • Acquiring/modifying equipment or devices
  • Adjusting/modifying examinations, training materials, or policies
  • Providing qualified readers or interpreters

Tension Between ADA and Absenteeism

It can be difficult when an employee is absent for a health reason, and co-workers must pick up the slack, or the work simply goes unfinished. But, the employer risks violating the ADA if the company terminates or disciplines such an employee without first considering whether the employee is a “qualified individual with a disability.” If the answer is yes, the employee does fall under the ADA umbrella, then the employer must consider whether they can reasonably accommodate the employee. An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified employee if it would not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s operation. Yet another term that sounds ambiguous at its face, undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant expense or difficulty when considering elements like the structure of its operation, employer’s size, financial resources, and nature of the industry.

Employers are NOT required to make an accommodation if it would mean lowering quality or production standards. (They’re also not required to provide personal items for use like hearing aids.)

Of course, not all persons with a disability will need the same kinds of accommodation. Some examples relating to absenteeism include:

  • Abe was diagnosed with cancer will be absent as he undergoes chemotherapy.
  • Betty has a chronic medical impairment in the form of diabetes and will need to attend related medical appointments in regular intervals.
  • Charlie deals with major depressive disorder and a recent exacerbation of symptoms mean he’ll need time to recuperate.
  • Diana will also need time to recover from surgery for her chronic back condition.

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Practice Pointers

To control attendance problems without violating the ADA, you should:

  • Evaluate each situation (that is, whether the employee is qualified, disabled, and whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation) on a case-by-case basis while acting as consistently as possible with past practice and in accordance with your attendance policy;
  • Have a written attendance policy that balances the necessity of good attendance, but also provides you with flexibility that you might need to accommodate a qualified individual with a disability;
  • Maintain accurate records of all absences, including a separate and confidential file for any medical certifications or medical information relating to an employee’s absences;
  • Be aware of the interplay between business/nonprofit policies and state and federal laws; and
  • Call your attorney when you have questions about your duties under the ADA. The saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is smart to keep in mind!

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Smart Employers Seek Advice

Again, nonprofit employers, remember the ADA applies to you too. The ADA can be a complex law, and it can get even trickier when trying to accommodate appropriately for absenteeism, while balancing business/nonprofit operations. Know you don’t have to navigate it alone. Questions? In need of counsel? Don’t hesitate to contact me.