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The ADA and Workers' Comp Laws

From the November 1996 issue of
HR Fact Finder

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") issued a notice providing enforcement guidance for cases involving interaction between the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and state workers' compensation laws. Among other things, the enforcement guidance could significantly impact the way employers administer light duty or modified duty programs.

Many employers have light or modified duty programs in place to reduce workers' compensation costs. Light duty positions are often made available only to employees with compensable work-related or occupational injuries. Previously, the EEOC did not make its position clear as to whether employers with such programs violated the ADA by not making light duty assignments available to employees whose disabilities are not job related. Although the new enforcement guidance reaffirms that the ADA's reasonable accommodation requirements do not obligate employers to create light duty positions for disabled employees, it states that employers with light duty positions for employees with occupational injuries must consider reassigning disabled employees who are not occupationally injured to those positions as a reasonable accommodation required by the ADA. According to the EEOC, if the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job and there is no other effective accommodation available, the employer must reassign the employee to a vacant reserved light duty position as a reasonable accommodation if the employee can perform its essential functions (with or without reasonable accommodations), unless the reassignment is an undue hardship for the employer.

Employers that have established temporary light or modified duty positions are not required by the ADA's reasonable accommodation provisions to make those positions permanent for disabled employees, according to the EEOC notice.

The EEOC notice also confirms that not every person with an occupational injury is disabled under the meaning of the ADA. Individuals are disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, have a record of such impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment.

The EEOC notice provides additional guidance concerning:

  • disability-related questions and medical examinations relating to occupational injury and workers' compensation claims;
  • hiring persons with a history of occupational injury;
  • reasonable accommodation for persons with occupational injuries; and
  • exclusive remedy provisions in workers' compensation laws.

While the EEOC enforcement guidance does not have the same force as does the law itself or the official regulations thereunder, it will be followed by the EEOC in investigating and determining charges and likely will be given considerable deference by the courts in lawsuits under the ADA. Since the EEOC enforcement guidance is effective immediately, employers should review their light duty programs and related policies to address compliance with the EEOC's position.

Cohen & Grigsby, P.C., 2900 CNG Tower, 625 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222-3115.

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