The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently sued the United Labor Agency (ULA), a workforce development organization in Cleveland, for allegedly denying an employee with breast cancer reasonable accommodations and forcing her to resign.
The EEOC said the action violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
"It is an employer's responsibility to know its obligations under the ADA," EEOC Philadelphia regional attorney Debra M. Lawrence said in a statement. "This includes complying with the temporary medical restrictions of employees who are receiving ongoing treatments for serious medical conditions, unless it can demonstrate that doing so would pose an undue hardship."
In January 2022, ULA required its workforce to return to the office after a period of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the lawsuit. The company denied the employee's request to temporarily work remotely as she was immunosuppressed and was undergoing radiation treatment.
Upon returning to the office, the worker was repeatedly omitted from staff e-mails informing personnel of COVID-19 exposures despite her requests to be notified. The employee was "forced" to resign in March 2022 due to health concerns, per the EEOC.
"So many employees face the challenge of working while receiving lifesaving cancer treatments," Jamie Williamson, district director of the EEOC's Philadelphia District Office, said in a statement. "When these employees request reasonable accommodations, the employer must be well-informed and engage with the employee about the request in a substantive and meaningful way before making a decision."
The EEOC is seeking back pay, compensatory and punitive damages for the employee and equitable relief to prevent future discrimination.
ULA did not respond to a request from SHRM Online for comment.
Attorneys Weigh In
After reviewing the EEOC's complaint, Andrew Gordon, an attorney with the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said that ULA "could have done so many things differently" to better support the employee.
"At a minimum, the employer should have engaged in the interactive process with this employee to determine what accommodations, if any, could have been made," Gordon said. According to the allegations in the complaint, ULA failed to do this.
Removing the employee from mass e-mails relating to COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace added insult to injury and could "haunt" the employer throughout this lawsuit, Gordon said. He noted that employees are increasingly requesting remote work as an accommodation for an ADA-related disability.
"In fact, some employers continue to allow remote work even though the pandemic is nearly behind us, and many of these same employers have no plans to require their employees to return to the office anytime soon, if ever again," he said.
Gordon opined that allowing employees to work remotely due to their disability often is a "doable" accommodation, considering companies permitted it for months during the pandemic. But he said many employers believe certain jobs can no longer be done remotely and are denying remote work requests— even ones made as part of a requested reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Peter Spanos, an attorney with the law firm Taylor English Duma LLP in Atlanta, noted the employer could have allowed the employee to continue to work remotely until the company could prove that this accommodation presented an undue hardship in a way that was not presented during the pandemic.
"Alternatively, the company could have found ways to limit her exposure to other employees in the workplace while she undergoes treatment," Spanos said. "Companies would be well advised to reduce legal risk by encouraging voluntary disclosure of cancer by employees and providing bona fide opportunities for employees who suffer from cancer to work out reasonable accommodations."
Spanos implored companies to understand that the ADA Amendments Act specifically includes "normal cell growth" as a major life activity.
He explained that people who have cancer "very likely have a disability within the meaning of the ADA because they are substantially limited in the major life activity of normal cell growth—or would be if cancer that is currently in remission reoccurs."