Whether you have recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or have been managing RA for some time, you may have experienced discrimination in the workplace or have concerns about your future as an employee. You have probably heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act, but you may still have questions about how it can benefit you. Ms. Keenan and Ms. Richards of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, New York District Office, explained to the Early RA Workshop how the statute is applied, and how you can advocate for yourself in the workplace. Their office’s primary goal is to prevent discrimination in the workplace and find solutions when it does occur.
The ADA is a federal statute designed to prevent discrimination and to enable individuals with disabilities to participate fully in all aspects of society.
Title I of the ADA of 1990 prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against "qualified individuals with disabilities" in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.
The ADA considers an individual to have a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that interferes with a major life activity such as working, walking, lifting, bending, eating, etc. Impairment is defined as any physical disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems (neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine).
This impairment must be recorded, most often through a formal diagnosis from a medical provider. An impairment is considered a disability even if it is in remission or if the impairment is episodic, such as with the flares that are common among those managing RA. You may qualify under the ADA if other people think of you as being disabled.
The ADA definition of “major life activity” was expanded in 2008 and 2011 so that it includes the operation of a major body function, including the immune and musculoskeletal system. In other words, RA meets these criteria.
One note about the above definitions: They are the definitions and interpretations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In some legal cases, a court may disagree with one or more of them. However, the EEOC’s message to those managing RA and other disabilities is to focus more on any discrimination you experience, rather than on whether or not your condition qualifies under the ADA. The EEOC’s mission is to help qualified individuals with disabilities become and remain productive members of the workforce. It also works to ensure that these qualified individuals receive reasonable accommodations in the workplace in order to do so.
A reasonable accommodation is any change to a job or work environment that permits a qualified applicant/employee with a disability to fully engage in the employment process. The process begins with applying and hiring, and includes being able to perform the essential functions of the job – while enjoying the same benefits and privileges as nondisabled colleagues.
An accommodation is not considered reasonable if it presents an undue hardship for the employer. For example, requesting that the work space be renovated would be too costly and might disrupt ongoing business. Additionally, if the accommodation request would not allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, it is not considered a reasonable accommodation.
In order to request a reasonable accommodation, you will need to first tell your employer that you have a disability. Individuals coping with chronic illnesses such as RA may be concerned about disclosing their condition. However, the only way to be protected under the ADA and to be entitled to the reasonable accommodation is to disclose enough information to justify the request for the reasonable accommodation. The act of disclosure comes down to a relationship issue between you and your employer. It should be done in a manner that makes sense for both parties and that can benefit the working partnership. If you disclose that you have RA and request an accommodation, and then are treated differently or discriminated against by the employer, the employer’s action would be illegal under the ADA. You should document the discriminatory behavior and follow the grievance process laid out by your employer, most likely through the human resources (HR) department. If you do not need a reasonable accommodation and do not plan on requesting one in the near future, you may decide to delay telling your employer until you feel that your RA symptoms may make it necessary.
Each employer has a different policy on reasonable accommodation, but most likely the process will start with the HR department. HR is not supposed to inform your supervisor of your disability without your permission. The confidentiality requirements under the ADA protect information you give voluntarily, as well as any information you reveal in response to written or oral questions from an employer during a medical examination. The reasonable accommodation process should be interactive and timely, beginning at the time you initiate the conversation. If you want to request an ergonomic chair, for instance, you could present the request to HR. Your employer is not required to provide the exact chair that you request. It may provide a less expensive chair. This would still qualify as a reasonable accommodation.
The average cost of a reasonable accommodation is $500 or less, and half of all reasonable accommodations carry no cost at all. Employees with disabilities actually often have better attendance records than those without disabilities. In part, this is because they want to maintain their employment, and also feel loyalty toward a company that is flexible with them. In other words, providing a reasonable accommodation usually results in a win-win situation both for the employee and employer.
Reasonable accommodations may come with a pay decrease and fewer advancement opportunities. If a reasonable accommodation means that you cannot work overtime, then this would also mean that you are not a “qualified individual" for a higher level position that would require longer hours. If you asked to be reassigned to a vacant position that is at a lower level than your current one, or requested that some of the marginal functions of your job to be taken away, you may receive a corresponding decrease in pay. Under the ADA, this would be legal. The primary focus of the ADA and the reasonable-accommodation provision is to enable you to continue working in a job whose essential functions you are able to perform.
If you are denied a reasonable accommodation, and you are subsequently fired from your position, you may have a basis for a disability claim. However, you will need to prove that the reasonable accommodation would have enabled you to perform the essential job functions.
If you have a diagnosed condition, in many cases it will be considered a disability under the ADA. The main purpose of the ADA and the EEOC’s office is to find ways, through reasonable accommodations, to enable qualified employees to engage fully in the workplace. The EEOC’s website (eeoc.gov), is a valuable resource as is the Job Accommodation Network (800.526.7234). These resources may be helpful now and in the future as you continue to manage your RA.