EEOC Fights Mental Health Discrimination

Disabilities come in many shapes and forms, from obvious to the eye to harder to pin down.  Few types of disabilities are less widely understood than mental disorders.  These disabilities encompass a huge variety of illnesses and disorders; mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, OCD, PTSD, autism, and many more.  Greater than one in four Americans older than 18, approximately 26.2%, suffer from some sort mental illness–around 57.7 million people.  In fact, mental disabilities are the cause of disability in the U.S. for people between the ages of 15 and 44.

EEOC Mental HealthGiven how widespread and varied mental disabilities are, it is no surprise that employment discrimination based on such disabilities is an incredibly hot button issue.  Just last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a comprehensive publication on the rise of discrimination based on mental health throughout the nation.  This has created heightened focus on an employer’s role in preventing such discrimination throughout the nation.  This heightened focus has been accompanied by a rise in the number of lawsuits alleging employment discrimination based discrimination.  The EEOC said in their publication last month that they alone had handled over 5,000 claims and received around $20M in settlements for mental health discrimination cases in 2016 alone.

With this in mind, it’s never been more important to understand how to approach mental health discrimination as an employer or the understand your rights if you suffer from a mental disability.  So how should a mental disability be handled by an employer?

Understanding Mental Disability Discrimination as an Employer

Federal law bars employers from taking adverse employment action (not hiring somebody, firing somebody, refusing promotions, etc.) based on a protected classification such as race, national origin, religion, gender, veteran status and disability. Specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects against discrimination based on an actual or perceived (by an employer) disability. This includes mental disabilities.  Thus, an employer cannot take adverse employment action based on an employee or would-be employee’s mental disability.  What’s more, employers must make reasonable accommodations—any accommodation that would not cause undue hardship for the employer—for the special needs of an employee with some sort of mental disability.

So what steps can you take as an employer to ensure your business doesn’t run afoul of the law?  The EEOC’s first recommendation is, as with any disability, always act on facts as opposed to stereotypes about a mental disability.  An anxiety disorder, for instance, should not automatically disqualify an applicant for a position that is particularly stressful.  Instead, an employer should only take adverse action where they have actual evidence that a mental condition disclosed by an applicant would make them incapable of performing a jobs duties.  Additionally, where there is evidence that a mental disability would cause an applicant to create a serious safety risk–regardless of reasonable accommodations–an employer may fire or refuse to hire that person based on their mental disability.

We’ve mentioned reasonable accommodations a couple times now, and it’s worth explaining how they work.  They’re basically exactly what they sound like, you need to make changes to workplace environment, work schedule, etc. so long as they aren’t so costly as to put a serious burden on an employer.  Some examples from the EEOC include altering work schedules to allow an employee to attend therapy sessions, providing quiet work spaces, specific shift assignments, etc.

Obviously an employer does not need to make any and all accommodations, sometimes the cost of such an accommodation will simply make it a bridge too far.  However, it’s important to understand that you must at least attempt accommodations for an employee before taking action unless you’re eager for a discrimination lawsuit.

What Does That Mean for You?

We’ve established that an employer can’t usually take adverse employment action based on any mental disability you may have–this includes firing you, refusing to hire you, denying you promotions or raises, forcing you to take leave, or even relegating you to worse duties or shifts than your peers.

Generally, you are allowed to keep your condition private and an employer may only ask about any condition you have in certain specific situations.  First, if you ask for accommodations–more on that later.  Second, after it has made you an actual job offer but before you start work.  Third, when they are engaged in some sort of affirmative action in hiring–focusing on tracking employing people with disabilities.  Finally, when there is some objective evidence that you either pose a danger or are incapable of performing your duties due to your condition. 

There may be situations where you choose to disclose any condition you may have, such as where you need specific accommodations in order to perform your duties.  You may also want to disclose in order to establish that you should receive benefits through other laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act–a federal law requiring employers to provide employees with a certain amount of unpaid leave for medical reasons or to take care of family members.  As a rule, it is better to disclose a condition and receive accommodations or benefits before they become necessary.

Any disability qualifies under the ADA which, without treatment, would substantially limit, for example, your ability to communicate, care for yourself, concentrate, interact with other people or make your duties harder, more uncomfortable, or particularly time-consuming.  This is true even if you have the condition under control via treatment.  It is important to understand that a mental condition does not need to be extremely severe or even permanent in order to receive protection and accommodations under the ADA.  In fact, temporary mental conditions are more likely to merit accommodations such as leave because they will eventually pass.  The question in whether a temporary mental condition will qualify is not necessarily how frequently it could limit you, but instead how restrictive they are on what you can do when you are afflicted. 

How to Protect Your Rights as an Employee with a Mental Disability

If you think an employer has violated your ADA rights, reporting the situation to the EEOC will allow them to advise you on the situation and begin an investigation of their own.  You should also report to the EEOC if you are harassed in the workplace over your condition, and an employer fails to take steps to correct this despite being informed of the issue.  It is also illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for reporting to the EEOC or bringing an action against them.  Remember that there is a time limit on bringing suits such as these, generally 180 days after the violation occurs, so know your rights and if you think you are mistreated–act before it is too late.

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