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EEOC Disability Discrimination Settlement Offers 3 Lessons for SMBs

The EEOC has announced that storage and security product manufacturer Justrite will pay $418,000 to settle claims of disability discrimination.

In an EEOC press release issued Wednesday, the agency noted that this settlement was the result of years of investigation into disability discrimination complaints at Justrite, based in Mattoon, Illinois. It resulted in some troubling findings about how the company treated employees seeking reasonable accommodations.

What three lessons can your business learn from this Justrite settlement?

1. Have a Dialogue With Employees About Reasonable Accommodations.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with qualifying disabilities. As you might imagine, this general statement doesn't explain fully how an employer should act when approached by an employee requesting a reasonable accommodation.

There is no bright line answer to when an employee's request is unreasonable, or any suggestion that a business can simply stop communication at any point. The EEOC investigation into Justrite found that the company "refused to engage in an interactive dialogue with employees to find reasonable accommodations," suggesting discrimination. To learn from Justrite's example, consider keeping your doors open to discussion about accommodations.

2. Consider Creative Options for Accommodation.

As you might imagine, reasonable accommodations can take various forms: modified shifts, telecommuting allowances, and even longer breaks. It's both counterproductive and potentially discriminatory to stonewall or categorically deny accommodations to an employee, as the EEOC investigators found of Justrite.

3. Do Not Retaliate Based on Accommodation Requests, Discrimination Complaints.

Nothing is to say that workers who request accommodations from their employers aren't also the same type of employee that you'd want to terminate. But you shouldn't let an employee's legal right to request an accommodation or complaint of discrimination be the reason (perceived or actual) for an employee's discipline or firing. Doing so will almost certainly lead to an EEOC complaint being filed against your business, not to mention potential wrongful termination lawsuits.

If you wish to fire an employee for other reasons, take steps to segregate protected legal activity from poor performance (e.g., a performance improvement plan). A business attorney can help your business walk the often thin line between accommodation and discrimination.

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