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What does it mean for employers to make reasonable accommodations?

Numerous state and federal laws prohibit discrimination and harassment in the workplace based on protected worker characteristics such as disability. Employers are also required to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for employees with physical or mental disabilities.

While California and federal laws against disability discrimination are very similar and have significant overlap, in some aspects, state law provides greater protections to employees. For example, state law applies to many more small employers (those that have at least five employees), while federal law only governs those with at least 15 workers.

Another example of the difference is in the breadth of the definition of disability. On the federal level, a disability must limit "substantially" a major life activity to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while California law does not require that the limitation be substantial.

A recent example

This past summer, a Nevada County jury awarded a Caltrans employee with allergies to perfumes and certain chemicals $3 million in damages for his claims that his employer failed to reasonably accommodate his disability, retaliated against him for exercising his rights and allowed a hostile work environment, according to The Sacramento Bee.

The plaintiff alleged that in 2010, a new supervisor stopped enforcing previous accommodations made for his allergies and began exposing him to problematic cleaning products. Management reportedly continued to ignore instructions from Caltrans to limit his exposure and he began to experience negative repercussions for having complained at higher levels of the organization. He alleged further that people began to pour perfume into his personal workspace.

It is not clear whether the employer appealed the verdict, but the case raises important issues about what is a disability and an employer's responsibility to ensure that lower-level management is enforcing accommodation directives and to guard against harassment and hostility toward an employee with disabilities. It also acts as a cautionary tale regarding the importance of training management to handle accommodations appropriately, as liability will generally extend to the employer arising out of the actions of supervisors.

The lawyers at Duggan Law Corporation in Sacramento advise Northern California employers about how to comply with California and federal laws against disability discrimination and requiring reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. We give guidance about developing internal policies and practices that meet the legal standards required by these laws and defend against allegations of discrimination.

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