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Viewpoint: Accommodating Employees with a Terminal Illness

Compassionate employers won't become obligated to offer light duty in other situations

A woman in a head scarf is showing a pie chart to another woman.

Andy, a director of human resources, called last week. He was pretty distraught. One of his employees, we'll call him Tom, has been battling lung cancer, and he recently learned that the cancer has advanced to stage four. It's clear that his days are numbered.

Tom has been a diligent, hard-working employee for several years as part of the employer's facilities team, and in this role he is responsible for setting up and breaking down events held by the employer. Based on Andy's observations, Tom can no longer perform the essential functions of his job.

In fact, it's obvious Tom will never be able to perform them.

I quickly sensed that Andy and I were heading toward that part of the conversation when a client invariably asks the question: Do we have an obligation to accommodate Tom's inability to perform the job and for how long, given that he has a terminal illness?

As if he precisely knew what was swirling in my head, Andy quickly cut off my thought. And he was blunt with me: "Jeff, we don't want to terminate Tom. And we don't want to put him on leave because he wants to be productive and work. I will make work up for him to do until he feels he can't work anymore."

But then Andy shared a legitimate concern: "In doing this for him, though, I don't want to be required to provide light duty or 'make-up' work for just any employee who can't perform their job. If I do this for Tom, will the law require me to do the same for other employees in the future?"

Benevolent Employers Are Not Penalized

Put Andy's question another way, does his good deed set a precedent for every accommodation request made by his employees in the future?

Thankfully, it does not. Courts have consistently declined to hold to a higher standard a "benevolent" employer that goes above and beyond the call of duty. A good example is Myers v. Hose, in which a city bus driver was ultimately terminated because he was unable to perform his job duties due to significant restrictions. In support of his Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim, the former employee argued that the fact that other employees were provided accommodations when he was not is evidence of discrimination.

Not so fast, said the court. In rejecting this ADA claim, the court clearly did not want to punish a good deed:

". . . the fact that certain accommodations may have been offered . . . to some employees as a matter of good faith does not mean that they must be extended to Myers. Such a regime would discourage employers from treating disabled employees in a spirit that exceeds the mandates of federal law. If an employer undertook extraordinary treatment in one case, the same level of accommodation would be legally required of it in all subsequent cases; in other words, a good deed would effectively ratchet up liability, and thus not go unpunished."

Taking it further, the court cautioned that "discouraging discretionary accommodations would undermine Congress' stated purpose of eradicating discrimination against disabled persons." (In any event, these claims should be dismissed for the additional reason that the plaintiff cannot show that any nondisabled person was treated better than he was treated.)

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Handle an Employee's Request for an ADA Accommodation]

Additional Insights for Employers

Andy breathed easier after I shared this perspective, and it gave him the flexibility he needed to care for his terminally-ill employee.

What else should employers keep in mind in these situations?

Be Creative

Are there other accommodations that should be considered for an employee in these situations? Think about:

  • Modifying job duties.
  • Offering flexible working hours, such as starting late and ending early, and giving extra breaks.
  • Altering workplace facilities or equipment.
  • Providing parking or transportation assistance.
  • Permitting time off for medical appointments.
  • Changing performance targets to consider the effect of any sick leave or treatment side effects, such as fatigue.
  • Changing where the employee works—for example, moving the employee to a ground floor office if he cannot handle climbing stairs.
  • Providing computer equipment, such as voice-activated software, if the employee can't type.

Be Compassionate

We will not be remembered for how much we know or for our great victories, but by how we made someone feel. Ten years ago this weekend, I lost my father after a tough battle with cancer. As my dad dealt with his illness, I remember with gratitude how his boss treated him in his final days—he allowed my dad to work when he could make it, gave him leave when he needed it, and interacted with him with compassion and empathy.

Some employers can't afford to provide make-up work or hold a position open for long. To those who can, the human touch can make a difference. And it's perfectly legal.

Jeff Nowak is a shareholder at Littler, an employment and labor law practice representing management, and author of the FMLA Insights blog, where this article originally appeared. © 2019 Jeff Nowak. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.


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