Workplace Policies and Processes

By Danielle M. Kays and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: For the first time since the enactment in 2008 of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Ninth Circuit addressed, and expanded, the definition of an individual who is “regarded-as” disabled under the act. The court held that a plaintiff establishes he is “regarded-as” disabled if he shows “an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment,” regardless of whether the impairment actually limits, or the employer perceives the impairment to limit, a major life activity. The decision reminds employers to proceed carefully when making personnel decisions regarding employees with injuries or impairments, even if they may not rise to the level of a disability.

Case Background

In Nunies v. HIE Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff Herman Nunies was a former delivery driver for HIE Holdings in Honolulu, who had requested a transfer to a part-time warehouse position. The parties disputed the plaintiff’s stated reason for his transfer request, but the plaintiff claimed he requested the transfer to a less-physical position because he had developed shoulder pain. Plaintiff alleged that the Company initially approved the transfer but subsequently denied it and forced him to resign after he reported his shoulder pain to his employer. The employer cited budget cuts as the reason for denying the transfer and advised plaintiff that his position no longer existed, but evidence showed the employer had an open warehouse position at the time of plaintiff’s termination.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit asserting disability discrimination under the ADA and state law, alleging that his employer forced him to resign because of his shoulder injury. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff could not assert a prima facie case of disability discrimination because he was not disabled under the ADA, among other arguments. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment to the employer. In its decision, the district court held that plaintiff did not have a disability and was not “regarded-as” having a disability under the ADAAA, because plaintiff did not provide any evidence that the employer subjectively believed that plaintiff “was substantially limited in a major life activity.” The district court further held that the plaintiff did not establish an actual disability because he “did not identify any major life activities that were affected by his impairment” — indeed, plaintiff had continued to work without apparent issue or limitation. As further evidence that plaintiff was not disabled, the district court held that plaintiff had not demonstrated that his shoulder pain substantially limited any activity compared to most people in the general population.

The plaintiff appealed, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as amicus curiae. The EEOC explained it offered its position to the appellate court because other district courts in the circuit had “failed to heed” the broader “regarded-as” disability definition promulgated by the ADAAA.

The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling

The Ninth Circuit agreed that the ADAAA expanded the scope of the ADA’s “regarded-as” definition and that some district courts continued to rely on pre-ADAAA case law to apply the older, narrower “regarded-as” disabled definition. Specifically, the district court in the Nunies case had erroneously concluded that Plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of presenting evidence that his employer “subjectively believed that Plaintiff is substantially limited in a major life activity.” Based on the plain language of the ADAAA, the appellate court held that plaintiff was not required to present evidence that the employer believed that plaintiff was substantially limited in a major life activity. Instead, the plaintiff could simply show that the employer terminated plaintiff “because of” his knowledge of the shoulder pain, regardless of whether the employer actually perceived the shoulder pain as a disability, and regardless of whether or not the shoulder pain amounted to an actual disability. Notably, the Ninth Circuit’s expansion of the scope of the “regarded-as” disability definition follows decisions in the First, Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Circuits which similarly defined the definition under the ADAAA.

Additionally, although the employer had argued that the ADAAA “regarded-as” disabled definition does not apply to “transitory and minor impairments,” the appellate court noted that this exception is an affirmative defense with the burden of proof on the defendant, and not the plaintiff. The court held that the employer had not set forth evidence to establish plaintiff’s shoulder pain was transitory and minor.

Therefore, the appellate court held that Plaintiff had established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer regarded him as having a disability.

The Ninth Circuit further reversed the circuit court’s holding that the plaintiff could not establish his shoulder pain was an actual disability. Specifically, the appellate court found that because plaintiff could neither work nor lift more than 25 pounds nor lift his arm above chest height without pain, he had identified two major life activities affected by his impairment. The court noted an impairment “need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict the activity” in order to substantially affect a major life activity. Therefore, the court found an issue of fact as to whether plaintiff had an actual disability.

Takeaways for Employers

The protections under the ADA, the ADAAA, and state law are ever-evolving and sometimes nebulous. As disability-related issues continue to increase in the workplace, employers should proceed carefully when considering personnel decisions involving individuals with potential injuries or impairments, as they may meet the “regarded-as” disabled definition. This decision is an important reminder to employers to ensure that any adverse actions taken against such employees are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and to carefully document the business reasons for those adverse actions.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating personnel decisions relating to employees with medical afflictions, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Adam R. Young and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: New state and federal laws and rules require employers to have compliant phones systems for 911 direct dialing and E-911.

Most large employers maintain multiline phone systems at their workplaces.  Along with emergency action plans and evacuation procedures, employers must take affirmative steps to ensure that employee phones provide adequate safety protections in the event of an emergency.  Some jurisdictions impose numerous regulations on those systems and their ability to dial 911, requiring onerous notifications, procedures, labels, and 911 dialing features.  And those requirements are constantly evolving, as 2018 marked a seminal shift in 911 regulations.

The federal government has passed a new law requiring that phones dial 911 directly, and has directed the Federal Communications Commission to undertake a rulemaking on Enhanced 911 regulations, also called “E-911.”  These federal and state developments may require employers to take action to ensure compliance, and revamp their emergency safety equipment and procedures.

New Federal Law Requires Direct Dialing of 911

In recent years, nine states and New York City have adopted rules requiring phones to be able to directly contact 911.  This means that any caller who dials 9-1-1 will be connected with emergency services, without a prefix (such as dialing 9 first) or going through an operator.  In 2018, President Trump signed a bipartisan new law which requires any phone to be able to directly contact 911, 47 U.S.C. § 623(b).  The federal law applies to all types of newly installed multiline phone systems.  State and local laws may require existing systems to be revamped by a compliance date.  Accordingly, employers replacing their phone systems or installing new systems will need to comply with these requirements.  Employers who operate phone systems that require an operator or dialing to get an outside line should review their systems and ensure that they comply.

Federal E-911 Legislation May Be Forthcoming

Federal and state governments have begun to require Enhanced 911 services for employers who use multiline phone systems.  States have enacted Enhanced 911 or E-911 requirements to multiline phone systems.  E-911 means that the telephone system automatically will transmit phone number information or specific location information (building, floor, office number) to emergency services when a caller dials 911.

These restrictions vary by state, but can require employers to notify employees regarding E-911 capabilities, train employees on 911 dialing procedures, and provide written instructions near phones.  Some also require that the phones provide E-911 capabilities in terms of number and/or location information.  The President signed H.R. 4986 § 506 (March 7, 2018), which requires the Federal Communication Commission to consider adopting rules that ensure a “dispatchable location” is conveyed with 911 calls.  The statute requires the FCC to conclude a proceeding to consider adopting rules E-911 location rules by September 23, 2019.  Employers should monitor this process closely, as it could result in another unfunded mandate for employers to comply with E-911.

Employers should begin work now to ensure that their phone systems comply, and that their employees are properly trained on the new and pending federal and state laws and regulations.  For additional information on workplace safety, emergency procedures, and emergency equipment, please follow our blog, or feel free to contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Dawn Reddy Solowey and Latoya R. Laing

Seyfarth Synopsis: The 8th Circuit recently held that while a request for a religious accommodation  may qualify as a protected activity, it is not necessarily “oppositional” so as to give rise to an opposition-clause retaliation claim under Title VII. Employers considering requests for religious accommodation should, despite this Circuit’s narrow decision, proceed carefully when considering any request.

Last year we blogged about a Minnesota District Court’s decision holding that a religious accommodation request did not constitute a protected activity under Title VII. The plaintiff appealed the ruling.  On November 13, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that it could not “categorically” resolve whether a request for religious accommodation is oppositional activity for a retaliation claim, but that it would affirm the ruling for the employer on the summary judgment record in this case.

Case Background

The case is EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, Civ. No. 17-2926 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the employer hospital, claiming that the employer had retaliated against an applicant by withdrawing a conditional job offer because she asked for a scheduling accommodation for her religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist. On March 15, 2017, the employer moved for summary judgment. The employer argued that the retaliation claim failed on grounds including that a religious accommodation request did not amount to protected activity as a matter of law. The District Court agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer.  The EEOC appealed, joined by amicus curiae that included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

What Did the Court Rule?

The 8th Circuit explained that it was considering an “issue of first impression,” namely whether “requests for religious accommodation are protected activity under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.”  The Court held that “the issue cannot be resolved categorically,” but affirmed the district court’s ruling on the summary judgment record in this case, holding that the applicant’s simple request for a religious accommodation was not “oppositional” activity as required for Title VII retaliation claims.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee or an applicant for employment because the employee opposed an unlawful employment practice. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the EEOC was required to show that the applicant opposed an unlawful practice.

The Court relied on the Supreme Court case Crawford v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson Cty. 555 U.S. 271 (2009), emphasizing that when an employee communicates to the employer a belief that the employer had engaged in discrimination, that communication almost always constitutes the employee’s opposition to the activity.

However, in this case, the Court held that the applicant’s actions were not oppositional because “merely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation.”

While the Court generally construes the statute “broadly to cover opposition to employment actions that are not unlawful,” the plaintiff’s request for religious accommodation, by itself, “did not reflect, much less communicate, any opposition or resistance to any North Memorial employment practice.”

The Court explained that at least for religious accommodation claims, “protected activity” is not always “oppositional activity.”  The Court held that in some circumstances, a religious accommodation request could form the basis for a retaliation claim, such as if an employer denied an accommodation on the grounds that it was not in fact based on a religious practice and fired the employee for making the request.  However, when the employee or applicant requests a religious accommodation, and the request is denied on the grounds that it cannot reasonably be accommodated absent undue hardship, there is no basis for an opposition-clause retaliation claim.  Instead, the employee or applicant’s exclusive claim is a disparate impact or disparate treatment claim under Title VII.

Finally, the Court noted that the applicant’s original EEOC charge had included a claim of disparate treatment.  However, the EEOC’s enforcement action alleged only unlawful retaliation.  Thus, while the Court held that the applicant’s “Title VII remedy as an unsuccessful job applicant was a disparate treatment claim under [the statute] for failure to reasonably accommodation,” there was in this case no disparate-treatment claim before the Court.

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Defending Retaliation Litigation?

In defending a retaliation claim, an employer should consider whether, in the relevant jurisdiction, there is a viable argument in its jurisdiction that a request for religious accommodation is not sufficient to establish protected activity as a matter of law.  This issue was one of first impression in the Eighth Circuit, and different courts are likely to reach different conclusions.  As always, it is important to keep in mind that the law governing retaliation claims under Title VII may differ from that under state and local laws.

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Managing Accommodation Requests?

Employers should follow a conservative approach in responding to religious accommodation requests.  Employers would be wise to assume — until there is settled, binding law to the contrary in the relevant jurisdiction on identical facts  — that a request for religious accommodation may be construed as protected activity under Title VII.  As a practical matter, this means that an adverse action that an employer takes against an employee, and that post-dates a religious accommodation request from the employee, may be challenged as retaliatory by the employee and/or the EEOC.  Further, an unlawful denial of a religious accommodation request can give rise to a disparate-treatment discrimination claim, even if there is no available retaliation claim.

Best Practices for Responding to Religious Accommodation Requests

Best practices for employers to respond to religious accommodation requests, and minimize the risk of retaliation liability, include:

  • Set up a policy and process for managing religious accommodation requests in a manner that is consistent and compliant with the jurisdiction’s law. Ensure that managers and HR are trained in the policy and process, and that employees know how to request a religious accommodation.
  • Review each religious accommodation request individually on a case-by-case basis. You can read our Roadmap for Responding to a Request for Religious Accommodation here. Given the complexities of this area of the law, it is wise to enlist the help of counsel who specializes in this area.
  • Ensure that any adverse actions taken against an employee, including those subsequent to a religious accommodation request, are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and that the business reasons for those adverse actions are well-documented.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

The Employment Law Lookout blog is taking a holiday break this week, but will resume delivering insightful discourse and updates on the day’s most pressing workplace issues next week.

As a reminder for employers we have previously posted these blogs on holiday safety topics and behaviors: Have Yourself a Safe, Undistracted, and Accident Free Holiday, Don’t Let Too Much Eggnog Ruin Your Office Holiday Party: Tips to Limit Employer Liability at Company Parties , and Ring in the New Year, But Don’t Invite the Constable.

In the meantime, we want to wish all of our readers, contributors, and editors a safe and happy (and warm) Thanksgiving holiday.  We hope you are able to spend time with family, friends, and loved ones and rest assured knowing that we’ll be on the lookout for more management insights to bring you as we move into the year end and into 2019.

Thank you and Happy Holiday.

By Mark A. Lies, II,  Adam R. Young, and Daniel R. Birnbaum

Seyfarth Synopsis: The flu and cold season is now approaching. Employers face concerns about how to respond to highly infectious diseases when an employee reports such illness. Seasonal illnesses have the potential to infect employees and shut down operations because of employee absence due to illness. Employers must consider methods to keep their employees healthy and productive while not running into legal pitfalls.

With the return to winter weather, the cold and flu season is once again upon us. This creates challenges for employers. Seasonal illnesses have the potential to spread throughout the workforce, and negatively impact operations. Companies should create a plan to respond to infectious diseases, including how to limit the spread of the disease within the workplace without violating any applicable laws or regulations. Employers should also encourage employees to get flu shots and practice good hygiene at work. Please click on this article for more detailed guidance for employers on dealing with infectious diseases during flu and cold season.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Brent I. ClarkJames L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Last month at the 2018 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress the speakers noted that “safety programs shouldn’t end when employees walk out the door and get into a vehicle to drive.”  The session was presented by Karen Puckett, the Director for the Center for Environmental Excellence Division of Enterprise Development at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Lisa Robinson, Senior Program Manager for Employer Transportation Safety, for the NSC. 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics provided that in 2017 transportation deaths from crashes were the leading cause of workplace deaths in the USA.  These statistics are often lost on safety professionals because OSHA has no jurisdiction over transportation incidents on public roads.  Additionally, 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 40% of employment fatalities were due to transportation incidents.

Puckett noted that the goal for the NSC’s program was to have considered the best practices for employees who drive for work.  This employment-based driving included not just fleet trucks and other vehicles, which are normally considered in company employee driving policies and training programs, but also any personally-owned employee vehicles and rental cars, vans, and other trucks that employees may use while doing company business.  Puckett explained that vehicles outside of the regular company fleet are often overlooked.

Puckett’s key takeaway was that the company’s personnel policy on driving and accident prevention and the related training materials and systems need to incorporate a recognition of these powerful statistics.  Employers need to build a workplace that promotes responsible driver behaviors, maintenance procedures and records, and effective training programs.

Robinson noted that the employer may also face considerable liability for any fatalities that come from employees driving on company business, however that is demanded by state law in the many states and localities the company may operate in.  Perhaps common sense behaviors for employee drivers to know are company policies prohibiting driving impaired by drugs or alcohol, driving while using a cellphone such as checking email, texting, or using the phone.  Many company policies do not incorporate these kinds of prohibitions.

Robinson concluded by illustrating numerous multi-million dollar jury verdicts and settlement agreements where employers were held responsible — even some where the employee was involved in activities or behaviors that some might reasonably suggest were not in the line of their employment.

For your further information, we have previously blogged on these related issues, including Drive Much? NIOSH Focus on Workplace Safety for Employees Who Drive for Their Job, President Declares “National Impaired Driving Prevention Month”, Asleep at the Wheel: Trucking Company’s Sleep Apnea Policy and Procedures Reviewed by Federal Courts, Impact of Driver Compensation on Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety, Eleventh Circuit Finds Insurance Carrier Responsible In Georgia For Harm Done by Intoxicated Employee, Employees Driving In Illinois? What Employers Need to Know, and Distracted Driving Leads to Employee Accidents and Fatalities.

Employer Takaway

For employers the key points from this session are that employee behavior on public roadways could have a big impact on the workplace.  The employer should have appropriate policies and training systems in place as part of a comprehensive safety program, with an aim to “improve your workplace driving safety culture.”

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Brent I. ClarkJames L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: This week at the 2018 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress the speakers on this Executive Forum noted that “automation, wearables, augmented reality, virtual reality, drones, big data, machine learning, the Internet of Things – emerging technologies are now almost too numerous to keep track of.”  This Executive Forum offered an in-depth look at the tools and trends that organizations are beginning to adopt and provided some practical comments for EHS professionals who need to prepare themselves for a changing safety environment.  The session was presented by Michelle Garner-Janna, CSP, CPE, Executive Director – Corporate Health & Safety, at Cummins, and Lydia Boyd Campbell, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer, at IBM.

In her presentation Garner-Janna noted that Cummins is a global power leader with 60,000 employees spread around the world in 190 countries.  The company has worked to develop its health and safety programs for what she deemed “Industry 4.0”, advanced systems which incorporate (1) a secure network; (2) standard safety core systems; (3) Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity; (4) advanced technology mobile virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR); and (5) big data advanced analytical systems.  An example of the Industry 4.0 at work is the company’s Powered Industrial Vehicle Positioning System, known as Essensium.  The Essensium System is an automated and augmented reality system used to move unmanned powered industrial trucks through warehouses in materials handling and storage functions.

Garner-Janna explained the Industry 4.0 systems being explored are exoskeletons and wearable technology.  The company is also currently trying out a VR system to provide health and safety training at a facility in China.

Campbell indicated that IBM has 380,000 employees.  Health and Safety personnel represent less than 6% of those employees onsite, and there is one H&S employee for every 1000 employees.  To compensate for reduced safety staffing, IBM’s H&S services group has been developing an integrated artificial intelligence system based on its “Watson” application.  With this system, the company has set-up a World-wide H&S call center in India that receives telephone calls and emails relating to safety and health concerns, translates the many languages, and routes the issues to “the right people” to work on resolution.  The Watson based system is also analysing the “tone” of callers’ voices to make sure that potentially high level of stress or problems are escalated appropriately.  The system is also now being reprogrammed to flag and handle personally sensitive data that employees may try to submit.

The emerging technologies and issues raised by speakers from Cummins and IBM demonstrate the changing nature of the safety environment and opportunities for safety professionals and employers to incorporate changing technology and big data into their approaches to protect employees.  These developments should be closely monitored by employers.

We have previously blogged on automation and issues related to the future of safety technology, including Future Enterprise – Workplace Safety Compliance Comes to the Forefront for Expanding Healthcare Industry, A Global Perspective on the Future of Wearable Technology, An Aging America and the Future of Paid Family Leave, and Robotics, Automation, and Employee Safety for the Future Employer.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Mark A. Lies, II,  Brent I. ClarkAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has just issued a Standard Interpretation clarifying the Obama-era guidance that prohibited incentive programs and circumscribed post-incident drug testing; “Clarification of OSHA’s Position on Workplace Safety Incentive Programs and Post-Incident Drug Testing Under 29 C.F.R. §1904.35(b)(1)(iv).”

We previously blogged about OSHA’s 2016 retaliation regulation and associated guidance, which had explained examples of post-accident drug-testing and safety incentive as instances of unlawful retaliation.  OSHA’s 2016 retaliation rule left employers uncertain about what programs were permissible and whether they would face citations for long-standing safety programs aimed at encouraging safe behaviors and reducing injury rates.

  1. OSHA’s Revised Perspective is Apparent in the New Standard Interpretation

OSHA’s new Standard Interpretation intends to “to clarify the Department’s position that [the rule] does not prohibit workplace safety incentive programs or post-incident drug testing. The Department believes that many employers who implement safety incentive programs and/or conduct post-incident drug testing do so to promote workplace safety and health.” The Interpretation explains that “evidence that the employer consistently enforces legitimate work rules (whether or not an injury or illness is reported) would demonstrate that the employer is serious about creating a culture of safety, not just the appearance of reducing rates.”

Post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be considered retaliatory and unlawful only where they seek “to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.” Properly formulated and lawful post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be permitted and will not result in OSHA citations.

  1. OSHA Permits Consistent Post-Incident Drug Testing Policies

For years, OSHA’s position on post-incident drug testing confounded employers, and employers faced complicated questions in the hours following workplace safety incidents. The Standard Interpretation clarifies that “most instances of workplace drug testing are permissible,” including:

  • “Random drug testing”;
  • “Drug testing unrelated to the reporting of a work-related injury or illness”;
  • “Drug testing under a state workers’ compensation law”;
  • “Drug testing under other federal law, such as a U.S. Department of Transportation rule”; and
  • “Drug testing to evaluate the root cause of a workplace incident that harmed or could have harmed employees.  If the employer chooses to use drug testing to investigate the incident, the employer should test all employees whose conduct could have contributed to the incident, not just employees who reported injuries.”

Accordingly, employers may lawfully implement, random drug testing programs, DOT drug testing programs, drug testing programs under a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and post-incident (also “post-accident”) drug-testing programs. Post-incident drug testing should be conducted consistently on any employee whose conduct may have contributed to the accident, and not merely the employee who was injured in an accident. For example, if a forklift operator collides with a pedestrian and injures the pedestrian, both the operator and pedestrian should be drug tested. OSHA reiterates that employers may not use a post-injury drug testing program, which the Agency views as retaliatory and also exposes employers to worker’s compensation retaliation tort claims.

3.         OSHA Permits Safety Incentive Programs

The Standard Interpretation reverses course on the 2016 retaliation regulation’s prohibition of safety programs. With limited adjustments, OSHA now permits employers to bring back reporting-based safety programs, which the Standard Interpretation lauds as an “important tool to promote workplace safety and health.” The Standard Interpretation permits a program which offers a prize or bonus at the end of an injury-free month. OSHA’s new position thus permits employers to bring back cash bonuses or the much-maligned monthly pizza party. The Standard Interpretation also permits programs that evaluate managers based on their work unit’s lack of injuries.

However, to lawfully implement such a safety program, the employer must implement “adequate precautions” to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness and are not discouraged from reporting. According to OSHA, a mere statement that employees are encouraged to report and will not face retaliation is insufficient. Employers need to undertake their choice of additional “adequate precautions,” such as:

  • “An incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace;”
  • “A training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and emphasizes the employer’s non-retaliation policy;” or
  • “A mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.”

The Standard Interpretation thus permits and encourages safety incentive programs that reward employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace. A second precaution, a brief training on reporting illnesses and injuries, would be simple for employers to conduct and add to onboarding for new hires. The “mechanism for accurately evaluating employees willingness to report” could be a regularly scheduled, random questionnaire on employee willingness to report injuries and illnesses. Accordingly, if employers adopt these low-burden precautionary measures, they may bring back or now adopt safety programs that are popular and effective at reducing workplace injury rates.

For related information on drug testing requirements, we had blogged on the recent Department of Transportation (DOT) final rule amending its drug testing program for DOT-regulated employers.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation TeamLabor & Employment, or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Brent I. Clark, Kristin G. McGurn, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General, has just released a Report on “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids,” (Washington, DC: HHS, September 2018).

In the Report, Alex M. Azar, II, Secretary of the HHS, notes that “the opioid misuse and overdose crisis touches everyone in the United States.  In 2016, we lost more than 115 Americans to opioid overdose deaths each day, devastating families and communities across the country. Preliminary numbers in 2017 show that this number continues to increase with more than 131 opioid overdose deaths each day.  The effects of the opioid crisis are cumulative and costly for our society—an estimated $504 billion a year in 2015—placing burdens on families, workplaces, the health care system, states, and communities.”

The “evidence-based public health approach” described in the Report offers a way forward.  Its goal is to reduce the impact of the opioid crisis by addressing factors that contribute to opioid misuse and its consequences.  The Report offers that by adopting this approach—which seeks to improve the health, safety, and well-being of the entire population—the nation will have an opportunity to take effective steps to prevent and treat opioid misuse and opioid use disorder and reduce opioid overdose.  The evidence-based public health approach to the opioid crisis complements the broader healthcare ecosystem’s focus on social determinants of health and consumers’ behavioral conditions, which are widely viewed as critical to improving individual and national health outcomes over the long term.

Specifically, the Report offers suggestions for various key stakeholders, including, the healthcare profession and other employers generally:

Health Care Professionals and Professional Associations – As Employer and Provider:

  • Address substance use-related health issues with the same sensitivity and care as any other chronic health condition.
  • Support high-quality care for substance use disorders.
  • Follow the gold standard for opioid addiction treatment.
  • Follow the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.
  • When opioids are prescribed, assess for behavioral health risk factors to help inform treatment decisions, and collaborate with mental health providers.
  • Check the PDMP before prescribing opioids.
  • Refer patients to opioid treatment providers when necessary.
  • Become qualified to prescribe buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder.

Industry and Commerce:

  • Support youth substance use prevention.
  • Continue to collaborate with the federal initiative to reduce prescription opioid-and heroin-related overdose, death, and dependence.
  • Reduce work-related injury risks and other working conditions that may increase the risk for substance misuse.
  • Offer education, support and treatment benefits for workers affected by the opioid crisis.

As a resource for employers, the HHS also offers the Surgeon General Postcard “What Can You Do To Prevent Opioid Misuse?”  The card encourages employers to open up to conversations about the impact of addiction, to learn how to read the signs of struggle within the workforce, to ensure safe workplaces designed to minimize the need for pain prescriptions, and to be prepared to deal with a crisis.  Specifically, HHS counsels:

TALK ABOUT IT:  Opioids can be addictive and dangerous. We all should have a conversation about preventing drug misuse and overdose.

BE SAFE:  Only take opioid medications as prescribed. Always store in a secure place. Dispose of unused medication properly.

UNDERSTAND PAIN:  Treatments other than opioids are effective in managing pain and may have less risk for harm.  Talk with your healthcare provider about an individualized plan that is right for your pain.

KNOW ADDICTION:  Addiction is a chronic disease that changes the brain and alters decision-making. With the right treatment and supports, people do recover. There is hope.

BE PREPARED: Many opioid overdose deaths occur at home. Having naloxone, an opioid overdose reversing drug, could mean saving a life. Know where to get it and how to use it.

HHS also provides help resources and information and a hotline (1-800-662-HELP (4357).

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Health Law Group, Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) TeamWorkplace Counseling & Solutions Team, or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Honore Hishamunda and Alex S. Drummond

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers face a tough challenge in trying to balance their obligations under the ADA with efforts to enforce workplace rules. A recent decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, highlighted how employers can get that balance right.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among other things, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the ADA. But what if, in the midst of attempting to comply with these obligations, employers have to enforce workplace rules against someone requesting a reasonable accommodation? A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision – McDonald v. UAW-GM Center for Human Resources – highlighted how, with care, employers can balance these seemingly competing goals.

The plaintiff in the case was a receptionist, a union member, and suffered from a genetic disorder which, with the employer’s permission, she took time off from work to treat. During plaintiff’s time with the employer, the operative CBA required employees to take lunch breaks no earlier than 11:00 a.m., and to, once a year, select either a half-hour lunchbreak with separate additional 15-minute breaks or an hour long lunch break. Plaintiff, despite these policies and despite choosing a half hour break, began leaving for the gym at 10:30 a.m. and tacking on her 15-minute breaks to essentially take an hour long break. In addition, plaintiff was accused of sexually harassing another co-worker.

In the midst of the employer’s sexual harassment investigation, plaintiff asked if she could either switch to an hour long break or tack on breaks in order to continue to work out as it helped with the pain from her previous surgeries. Her supervisor rejected this request citing the CBA’s rules, and offered plaintiff the option of arriving early in the mornings to work out. In addition plaintiff’s supervisor warned plaintiff that continued violation of the early or extend lunch break policy could result in disciplinary action.

Plaintiff rejected her supervisor’s compromise, and contacted the company’s personnel manager regarding her requests, this time providing a doctor’s note stating that plaintiff needed to exercise daily for 30 to 60 minutes. The personnel manager stated that the request would need approval from other members of management. However, while plaintiff’s request was being processed and on the same day she received an update regarding the same, plaintiff left early to go to the gym without authorization. Plaintiff was caught and eventually suspended for violating workplace rules. Plaintiff never returned to work and instead took personal leave before submitting her voluntary resignation. The time between her initial accommodation request and her resignation was less than 2 months.

Plaintiff sued claiming a failure to accommodate. Further, plaintiff alleged that her employer suspended her in retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation, or, alternatively, that she was constructively discharged. The Sixth Circuit, affirming the District Court, granted employer’s motion for summary judgment on each of plaintiff’s claims.

The Sixth Circuit held that the employer met its obligations to reasonably accommodate plaintiff. Specifically, the court found that the employer listened to plaintiff’s initial request for an accommodation, provided alternatives, again listened to plaintiff’s second request for an accommodation, and was unable to process the request because plaintiff resigned. In doing so, the court noted that, in the ADA context, (i) an employer’s minimal delay due to internal processing or events outside of its control does not an ADA violation; (ii) an employer is not required to provide a specific accommodation if it identify other reasonable accommodations; and (iii) when an employee quits before their accommodation request is resolved, the employee, and not the employer, is typically at fault for the interactive process breaking down.

In addition, the Sixth Circuit held that the employer did not retaliate against plaintiff for asserting her ADA rights. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff was not retaliated against because she was suspended for violating workplace rules, not for requesting reasonable accommodations. In doing so, the court noted that an employee must show that their protected activity was the “but-for” cause of any adverse action. Further, the court found that plaintiff, and other employees, cannot make such a showing where “an intervening legitimate reason to take an adverse employment action [like insubordination] dispels an inference of retaliation based on temporal proximity.”

The Sixth Circuit also held that the employer did not constructively discharge plaintiff. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff’s complained of treatment – the employer investigating her for alleged sexual harassment, declining her preferred accommodation, and suspending her for insubordination – did not support her constructive discharge claim. In doing so, the court noted that a constructive discharge claim “is hard to prove” and requires a showing that “working conditions were objectively intolerable and that [the] employer deliberately created those conditions in hopes that they would force [the employee] to quit.” Further, the court noted that, in the instant case, plaintiff’s suspension was related to her “deliberate insubordination” and her investigation was “management simply… responding to a workplace complaint” such that “no reasonable jury could find that [employer] hoped [plaintiff] would quit because of these preferred reasons.”

This decision highlights that, even when wrestling with their obligations under the ADA context, employers may and should enforce workplace rules.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.