Under California state law, workers with a disability are protected against several forms of discrimination in employment practices. Employers subject to this legislation cannot base employment decisions like hiring, firing, promoting, paying, or training on an employee’s disability status. Moreover, employers are legally obligated to make reasonable accommodations for workers who have a disability so that they can perform their job duties. Employees who are protected under state law include those who suffer from physical and mental disabilities, as well as medical conditions. Physical disabilities include physical impairments affecting a major bodily system and limiting a major life activity. Some conditions have been explicitly named as protected under state law: blindness, deafness, missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring wheelchair use, cerebral palsy, and episodic or chronic conditions like epilepsy, seizure disorder, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDs, hepatitis, and heart/circulatory disease. Mental disabilities in this context include mental or psychological conditions that limit a major life activity (e.g. autism, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression, cognitive disabilities, etc.). Medical conditions refer to genetic characteristics associated with a disease or health impairment related to a diagnosis of cancer; they often come up in disability discrimination because of increased risk of future medical issues. These definitions may seem vague or unclear, giving a glimpse into how complicated disability discrimination law can be. Let’s look at a few things that are good to know about the coverage and limitations of disability discrimination law in California.
1. California law specifically excludes particular mental health problems
While California law has broader protections for workers with a disability than federal law, there are explicitly excluded categories of mental health problems that are not protected at all from discrimination in employment practices. These include compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and particular sexual behavior disorders, including pedophilia, voyeurism, and exhibitionism. Additionally, substance abuse disorders resulting from the current, unlawful use of drugs are not protected. Consequently, discrimination based on any of these problems is legal.
2. Mild, temporary disabilities are not protected
This probably makes intuitive sense to most people. What it means is that employees suffering from conditions that have minor or no long-term effects do not qualify as a protected class. For instance, Perry has the flu. He asks his boss for a reasonable accommodation to his temporary disability in the form of a week off of work. His boss tells him he can use sick days. This example illustrates that it really wouldn’t make sense for colds, flu, and the like to allow people special accommodations when there are alternative ways to deal with those relatively mild problems. Other conditions not protected include sprains, muscle aches, bruises, soreness, minor scrapes, non-migraine headaches, and minor gastrointestinal disorders that are not chronic. If employers want to fire someone for getting the flu, they can technically do that, assuming at-will employment, and most courts will not cry foul unless the sick person had a pretty severe reaction.
3. Reasonable accommodations must be, well, reasonable
Yes, employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. What does that mean exactly, though? “Reasonable” in this context means the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Undue hardships would involve substantial expense and difficulty for the employer and can be determined by looking at things like the employer’s financial resources, the size of the business, the nature, and cost of the necessary accommodation, and the impact the accommodation is likely to have on the employer’s business operations. Given that, it is usually possible for employers to come up with reasonable accommodations. Installing ramps, providing screen reader software or closed captioning at meetings, printing materials in large print, and adjusting work schedules are all examples of common, relatively simple solutions to problems posed by certain disabilities.
4. Employers who do not know cannot be held liable
Employees with a disability typically have a responsibility to make their employers aware of any need for accommodations. Legally, employers cannot be held responsible for discriminating based on disability if they were unaware of the disability. For instance, employers are not liable for failing to accommodate someone they did not know needed to be accommodated. Most employees with disabilities who might need reasonable accommodation should inform their employer about their condition, assuming the disability and limitations are not very obvious. It is a good idea for employees to give notice of their disability in writing, whether through email, text, or dated letter. Documenting this notice can protect the employee later if the employer tries to deny knowledge of it. Sometimes, employees must provide medical documentation confirming their disability or need for accommodation and in those cases, failure to do so can preclude any claims of illegal disability discrimination.
5. Some employers must accommodate people suffering from alcoholism and/or drug addiction
Employers with 25 or more employees must provide reasonable accommodations for employees with addictions to drugs or alcohol. However, employees are only eligible if they voluntarily enter and participate in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program, which the employer must permit as long as the leave of absence would not pose an undue hardship. The period of leave is unpaid unless the employee uses accrued leave, like sick days. Moreover, the employer has a duty to try to protect the privacy of any employees who do choose to participate in the rehabilitation program. These protections only extend so far, though. Employers are within their right to discipline or fire employees who show up to work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as well as employees whose performance is negatively affected by their alcohol or drug use.
6. Mixed-motive claims can get tricky
If an employer takes an adverse employment action against an employee and part of the reason is based on said employee’s disability or the employer’s perception of a disability, then that should be grounds for a successful discrimination lawsuit, right? Well, not exactly. If there were multiple motives the employer had in taking the action and they were not all discriminatory, then the law gets a little more complicated. An employer might have legitimate reasons to fire an employee with a disability that is unrelated to the disability. In mixed-motive disability discrimination cases, the discriminatory intent must be a “substantial motivating factor” in the adverse employment decision. If an employer can show that a legitimate, non-discriminatory motive by itself would have led to the same decision, then their liability is significantly reduced.
Clearly, there are many nuances of the law when it comes to disability discrimination. Because the law can be so complicated, employees who think they have a claim or want to understand their rights better are urged to contact a discrimination attorney. Together, they can work towards equality for people of all abilities.