Reasonable Accommodations Are Required as to Employer-Provided Benefits and Privileges of Employment
A recent case highlights and clarifies an oft-overlooked provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act – that employers must provide accommodations not only to enable employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their job, but also to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as non-disabled employees. However, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, this requirement is limited to those benefits and privileges that are actually provided by the employer.
Background of the Case. In Hopman v. Union Pacific R.R., a conductor requested to bring his service dog on board moving trains as a reasonable accommodation to mitigate the PTSD and migraine headaches resulting from his prior military service. His request was denied due to the dangers of having a dog in that particular work environment, and he sued, arguing that the freedom from mental or psychological pain caused by his PTSD was a privilege of employment. (He did not assert a claim that the service dog would enable him to perform the essential functions of his job and, in fact, received a promotion during the litigation process, indicating that he was successfully performing his job).
The Court’s Ruling. The Eighth Circuit, relying on EEOC regulations and guidance interpreting the ADA, held that the “benefits and privileges of employment” refers only to employer-provided services that are offered to non-disabled individuals in addition to disabled ones. It further found that such benefit or privilege does not include freedom from mental or psychological pain, since, as set forth in the EEOC’s Interpretive Guidance, the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation does not extend to accommodations “that are primarily for the personal benefit of an individual with a disability…. [I]f an adjustment or modification assists the individual throughout his or her daily activities, on and off the job, it will be considered a personal item that the employer is not required to provide.” Thus, according to the Eighth Circuit, “Providing a service dog at work so that an employee with a disability has the same assistance the service dog provides away from work is not a cognizable benefit or privilege of employment.”
Lessons for Employers. This case is a good reminder that the reasonable accommodation obligation is not just limited to situations involving an employee’s essential job functions. Employers must keep in mind that they must also provide such accommodations to permit employees to enjoy the general, employer-provided benefits and privileges of employment, which may include fringe benefits, as well as access to facilities and recreational programs.