A Georgia Employer Agrees to Pay $47K After Allegedly Failing to Accommodate a Worker’s Lung Disease and Elevate Risk of Contracting COVID-19

As we enter the holiday season this year, one thing for which we can be thankful is that most of us generally can celebrate the season with many fewer restrictions as compared to two years ago. Even as COVID-19 has dissipated from its 2020 worst, the virus (and complications from it) remains a reality for many people. That includes people who have one or more COVID-connected disabilities that require a workplace accommodation. If you’re one of those people and your employer denied you the accommodation you need, you should get in touch with a knowledgeable Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer to discuss what the legal system can do for you.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued a Newton County pharmaceutical manufacturing employer in a first of its kind: an action against an employer for an alleged failure to accommodate a worker’s disability that was related to COVID-19. Recently, the EEOC announced that the employer had agreed to settle the case.

R.M., the employee in the case, was a health, safety, and environmental quality (“HSE”) manager at the company’s facility located about 50 miles east of Atlanta. In early March 2020, the manager’s doctor diagnosed her with obstructive lung disease. The doctor recommended that the manager work from home and take frequent breaks while working.

Shortly after that took place, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia. As part of its measures to deal with the pandemic, the employer placed all its workers on schedules where they worked from home four days per week and on-site one day. The employer lifted its COVID-19 measures on June 1, meaning that all staff resumed working on-site five days per week.

The manager sought a disability accommodation based on her lung disease and an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19. She asked to work from home two days per week and to take extra breaks when working on-site. The employer rejected this request, even though it allegedly allowed other HSE managers to work from home.

Three months after R.M. made her request, the employer fired her.

According to the EEOC, what the employer did amounted to both illegal disability discrimination and retaliation. The employer ultimately settled the case, agreeing to pay the manager $47,500.

When COVID-19 Is (and Isn’t) a Disability Under the ADA

The settlement is a reminder of the fact that COVID-19 or COVID-related conditions are not always disabilities that trigger the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they potentially may be. As the EEOC explained last December, a bout of COVID-19 that inflicts “mild” symptoms — a/k/a that presents like an ordinary cold or flu — and causes no other consequences, won’t constitute a disability under the ADA.

However, if a worker develops “long COVID” or whose COVID causes issues like heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, etc., lasting several months, then that worker very possibly has a qualifying disability under the ADA. Additionally, you can qualify for accommodation under the ADA if you, like the worker in the Newton County case, have an existing condition that elevates your risk of contracting COVID-19.

The manager’s case is a reminder that disabilities can come in many forms and, when a worker has one or more, the law requires that the worker’s employer provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. As an employer, it is important to ensure all of your policies and practices are compliant with the ADA. As a worker, it is important to understand your rights under the law and your options if your employer doesn’t meet its statutory obligations. The skilled Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert are here to help. We have the knowledge and the hands-on experience to help employers and employees to understand their rights and responsibilities. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation.

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