Articles Posted in Disability Rights

Employment Lawyer Rasha Zeyadeh

Dallas Employment Lawyer Rasha Zeyadeh

Rasha Zeyadeh writes about Biden’s vaccine mandate for large employers in NewsBreak:

“President Biden’s new sweeping vaccine mandate could impact more than 100 million Americans. Federal employees have 75 days to get the Covid-19 vaccine or face termination. Private employers with 100 or more employees must require employees to either get vaccine or to submit to weekly testing. Private employers who do not comply with the mandate could face hefty fines for each violation. Disability and Religious exemptions are the only way around Biden’s mandate.”

deontae-wherryBy all accounts, we can agree that the year 2020 was unconventional in every way. We were forced to live our lives in ways that many of us never imagined. And when we thought things were going to get better, it seems things only got worse. As we enter into the new year, it is our hope that our best days are ahead of us with the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine (“vaccine”). 

No one knows how long it will be before everyone is vaccinated or even if the rushed vaccine will work. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, while Americans’ confidence in the vaccine is increasing, many groups remain hesitant about getting vaccinated. It is becoming clear that whether we want the vaccine or not, employers are going to have a critical role in the administration of the vaccine.  This article discusses employees’ rights as it relates to employer-mandate vaccinations. 

On December 16, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) published its guidance related to workplaces requiring the COVID-19 vaccine. This guidance helps us better understand what we can expect in the days and months ahead. Nevertheless, employers must not violate employment laws in mandating or administrating the vaccine. 

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Many Texas employers require potential applicants and current employees to submit to drug testing. Federal and Texas laws permit private employers to adopt and implement broad drug and alcohol testing policies for their employers, with minimal limitations. However, according to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), government employers must show a compelling justification for drug testing.

The consequences of a failed drug test can be life-altering for an applicant or employee. In some cases, employers will provide rehabilitation services, but more commonly, employers will refuse to hire a potential applicant or terminate an employee. Additionally, employers are allowed to release the test results to the TWC, and this can affect a person’s unemployment compensation. Employees who believe their employer impermissibly drug tested them may have some legal protections.

Most employers should provide their employees with a written drug testing policy that outlines what results will be a violation, which employees require drug testing, and what measures will be taken after a violation. Unfortunately, Texas employers can fire employees that refuse to sign an acknowledgment of the drug testing policy. However, employers need to provide the employee with a warning that there is a risk of termination if they fail to sign the policy. Additionally, the policy needs to be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a labor law that provides eligible employees with the right to take job-protected, unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks per year for family and medical reasons. Under the FMLA, eligible employees who take this leave will retain their group health benefits. Generally, employees are eligible if they worked for their employer for 12 months, for at least a minimum of 1,250 hours, and at a location where the organization employs at least 50 employees within 75 miles. Employees can take leave in specific situations, including during and after the birth of their newborn, after a child is placed with the employee for foster care or adoption, to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a severe medical condition, or when the employee cannot work because of a critical medical condition. Additionally, in 2008, the FMLA afforded additional benefits to military families through the Military Family Leave provision.

The “Exigency Leave” portion of the FMLA provides additional protections to qualifying employees whose spouses, parents, or children are deployed or going to be deployed to a foreign country. Similar to typical FMLA requirements, individuals who want to use this leave must work for a qualified employer and meet eligibility requirements. This leave allows the individual to take a total of 12 workweeks of leave to address issues that often arise when a family member is facing deployment. For example, the leave is designed to allow family members to arrange for daycare or attend official military ceremonies.

Additionally, Military Caregiver Leave allows qualifying spouses, parents, children, and next-of-kin to care for their military family members if they are suffering from qualifying injuries or illnesses. An employee can take this leave as long as they meet eligibility requirements and work for a qualified employer. This leave provides caregivers with the right to take a total of 26 workweeks of unpaid leave during a single 12-month period.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers cannot discriminate against prospective or current employees based on their disability. The ADA provides that qualified individuals with disabilities should receive a reasonable accommodation to perform their job duties, unless it imposes an undue burden on the employer. These accommodations offer disabled individuals the ability to engage in equal employment opportunities.

Reasonable accommodations can be provided at all stages of employment and in various ways. For example, employers may be asked to change the application process or training process to accommodate a prospective or new employee. Moreover, an employer could adjust equipment or software to assist a disabled employee. Although employers are not required to create new positions, they may be required to reassign employees if a qualified position becomes available.

In some instances, an employee may request to work at home to accommodate their disability. Although not every job can be performed at home, teleworking can be a reasonable accommodation depending on the circumstances. The ADA does not mandate employers offer teleworking as a reasonable accommodation; however, if an employer does retain a teleworking policy, they must allow disabled employees that same opportunity. The result may be an employer modifying their current teleworking policy to accommodate a person with disabilities.

In addition to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the Act) protects employees who work for the federal government, a program conducted by a federal agency, a program receiving federal financial assistance, or a federal contractor. This Act protects the rights of people with disabilities from discrimination regardless of the number of employees. Legislators designed the Rehabilitation Act in response to the large number of individuals with disabilities who were either unemployed or underemployed based on employers’ reluctance to hire them. Additionally, the Rehabilitation Act requires employers to hire and retain individuals with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Act prohibits employers who receive federal funds from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability. The Act provides that employers cannot deny benefits, exclude, or discriminate against prospective, current, or former employees based on their disability. Additionally, the Act requires Texas agencies or contract service providers who receive federal funds to recruit actively, employ, and advance qualified disabled individuals.

If a Texas employee believes their employer is discriminating against them, but the ADA does not cover them, they may still be able to pursue a claim based on the Rehabilitation Act. However, the Rehabilitation Act and ADA use the same standards when determining if an employer is engaging in employment discrimination.

Under both state and federal law, Texas employees are protected from discrimination based on pregnancy and pregnancy-related illnesses; however, that was not always the case.

Originally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin was not interpreted by the courts to include protection for pregnancy and related medical conditions. During this time, employers were able to make decisions based on the fact an employee was pregnant. It was not until over a decade later, with the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) that pregnancy was covered. Since the passage of the PDA, discrimination based “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” has been prohibited because it is considered to be discrimination based on a person’s sex.

Under the PDA, women who are pregnant or are suffering from pregnancy-related illnesses cannot be discriminated against. Common pregnancy-related illnesses include:

In some cases, an employer may ask a returning employee to take a fitness-for-duty examination to ensure that the employee is mentally and physically able to perform the tasks of their job. However, these fitness-for-duty exams can be intrusive and may reveal confidential information about an employee’s disability. Generally speaking, an employer’s ability to request a fitness-for-duty examination depends both on the nature of the injury that necessitated the employee’s leave as well as the specific functions of the employee’s job. When the employee’s underlying condition is one that qualifies as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are limited in their ability to require fitness-for-duty examinations.

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” If the reason for the employee’s leave was not considered a disability under the ADA, and the employee’s condition is one that could reasonably affect their ability to perform their job, then employers generally will have broad discretion in requiring a fitness-for-duty examination. However, even when an employer is able to require a fitness-for-duty examination, the employer must follow the procedural requirements outlined in 29 CFR § 825.310. This includes providing adequate notice to the employee as well as a list of the “essential functions” of the employee’s position. Of course, a fitness-for-duty exam can only be required as it relates to the specific health condition that caused the employee’s absence.

When an employee suffers from a disability as classified by the ADA that necessitates they take FMLA leave, an employer can only request a fitness-for-duty examination if the examination is related to the employee’s job and is required by business necessity. Typically, this requires that an employer be able to show that the employee’s condition either prevents them from performing the necessary functions of their job or that the employee poses a direct threat to their own safety of the safety of others. Importantly, an employer’s belief must be based on concrete facts, rather than stereotypes or assumptions about an employee’s condition. For example, an employer could not require a fitness-for-duty examination for a returning employee who suffered from debilitating depression based on the belief that all people who suffer from depression present a potential risk in the workplace.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, federal discrimination laws prohibit employers from engaging in discriminatory conduct during employment. This also includes the pre-employment interview process. Employers cannot make a hiring decision based on a person’s age, race, religion, sex, national origin, or disability.

Sometimes, employers trying to gather as much information as possible about an applicant will rely on preconceived notions and stereotypes in doing so.

A few of the problematic questions employers routinely ask are:

  • whether an applicant is married, engaged, single, or divorced;
  • whether an applicant has any children and, if so, how old they are;
  • whether an applicant plans on becoming pregnant;
  • what an applicant’s spouse or boyfriend does for a living;
  • whether an applicant attends religious services and, if so, what days; and
  • the origins of an applicant’s last name.

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Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to offer employees with disabilities reasonable accommodations that will provide them with the ability to apply for or perform the necessary functions of their positions. Employers will often attempt to shrug off this responsibility by claiming that providing the employee with a reasonable accommodation would cause the company to suffer an undue hardship. However, in order to prove an undue hardship and avoid a Texas disability discrimination claim, the employer must provide evidence showing that the accommodation would result in a significant expense or difficulty.Although employees may request a specific reasonable accommodation, employers may provide their own accommodations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) looks at various factors to determine whether the hardship is significant or whether the accommodation is appropriate.

When Is Light Duty Considered a Reasonable Accommodation?

Light duty is a malleable term that is applied differently depending on the employment setting. Broadly, light duty is considered to be a type of temporary or permanent work that is less strenuous than an employee’s normal job duties. Light duty can be applied in both physical and mental-health contexts, and it is relative to the particular position.

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