Employers: Do your managers understand their obligations under disability discrimination laws?

In my opinion (notice I omitted the adjective “humble”), the most challenging area of discrimination law involves accommodations for disabled employees and applicants. In other areas of discrimination law, the employer has to treat everyone the same. But with a qualified disabled applicant or employee, the employer has to treat the person “better” in the sense of providing accommodations that it wouldn’t provide to someone who wasn’t disabled.

Not enough employers appreciate that distinction. It means being legally required to accommodate a qualified individual with a disability, even if providing the accommodation involves certain costs or inefficiencies. Both the Americans With Disabilities Act and comparable state laws (the Fair Employment and Housing Act in California) are premised on the fact that employers must be more flexible and willing to accept certain burdens if people with disabilities are to be able to participate fully in the workforce.

A recent lawsuit against Starbucks in San Diego illustrates this problem. A one-armed man applied for employment as a barista. According to the suit, the manager told the applicant he couldn’t do the job with one arm. The applicant responded that he’d worked in food and beverage service for 10 years with no problem, but the manager allegedly refused to consider him.

I first saw the case, Pierre v. Starbucks, in Law360 (subscription required). What the manager should have done is discussed the essential functions of the job and explore with the applicant what, if any, accommodations he required. This is the interactive process that California law specifically requires. Then, before making any decision, the manager should have consulted with human resources, who could have sought legal advice if they were unfamiliar with the specific legal requirements.

Like I said at the outset, this is the most complicated area of discrimination law. Employers and their managers need to appreciate this complexity and know where and how to get help when these situations arise.