Another Inflexible Work Policy Fails the ADA

In the past several years, the EEOC and plaintiffs’ counsel have successfully targeted certain blanket work policies for challenge under the ADA, such as absence control policies and “100% fit” return-to-work policies.  The latest such policy to come under attack is United Airlines’ policy mandating a full workweek for certain classifications of employees.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit and subsequent consent decree, United Airlines had implemented a blanket policy requiring all reservations sales and service representatives either to work minimum-hour workweeks, or to retire or go out on extended leave.  Employees who went out on leave were terminated when leave ran out.  The EEOC sued in federal court in Seattle, arguing that this policy violated the ADA because it precluded the company from considering reduced-hour work schedules as a reasonable accommodation for employees with certain disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, DeQuervain’s tendonitis and carpal tunnel, and myasthenia gravis (a muscle condition).  United Airlines recently settled the matter by agreeing to change the policy, train employees, and pay $600,000.00 to a group of affected reservations agents with disabilities. 

The Bottom Line for Employers:  

As the EEOC’s recent enforcement actions emphasize, the obligation to make reasonable accommodations can include making exceptions to blanket work policies when necessary to allow employees to perform essential job functions.  Employers need to carefully consider any such blanket policy – which could include absence control and maximum leave policies, return-to-work or fit-for-duty policies, telecommuting policies, and the like – to determine whether and to what extent the ADA may require exceptions for certain disabled employees.