Recently, an appeals court in Virginia upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a breast cancer survivor who had been let go from her job after treatment left her unable to do heavy lifting. The suit was based on a claim that the dismissal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA), a federal law that protects against various types of discrimination both in and out of the workplace. However, the court’s final ruling was that the firing was not a violation of the ADA, because lifting was an essential function of the job for which no reasonable accommodation existed.
So what does all of that mean? Let’s break it down:
The phrase “essential function of the job” is legalese for “job requirement.” In other words, lifting was in the plaintiff’s job description. It was one of the things she was hired to do. Her inability to lift meant that she was no longer qualified for the job, and in order to be eligible to use the ADA’s protections, an employee must be qualified to do the work he or she is hired to do.
The ADA also says that, if possible, the employer is required to make a change in the work environment or in the way that things are customarily done if it will help their employee perform essential job functions — for example, letting a supermarket cashier sit on a stool rather than stand, or allowing an accountant with a compromised immune system to telecommute so she isn’t exposed to germs. These changes are called “reasonable accommodations.” And, unfortunately, in this case there was no reasonable accommodation that would help this woman to lift heavy objects.
Fortunately, there are many, many circumstances in which reasonable accommodations can help cancer survivors continue to work during and after treatment. To learn more about the ADA and reasonable accommodations, check out the resources below: