Judge Joy Flowers Conti, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, recently certified a nationwide class action on behalf of current and former United Parcel Service, Inc. (“UPS”) employees who were absent from work for medical reasons and were unable to return to work because of company-wide policies. These policies allegedly include: an unwritten rule that employees could not return to work from a medical leave until they were “100% healed” (i.e., no medical restrictions); applying its written Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance policy to delay and avoid providing accommodations; and using general job descriptions that fail to describe the essential functions of specific jobs. Hohider v. United Parcel Service, Inc., Case No. 04-363.

In attempting to determine whether the alleged UPS policies were discriminating against employees and applicants, the court looked to the language of the ADA that describes discrimination as “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity” or “denying employment opportunities to a job applicant or employee who is an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, if such denial is based on the need of such covered entity to make reasonable accommodation to the physical or mental impairments of the employee or applicant.”

The court found that Plaintiffs’ policy claims in the case – including the claims relating to the “100% healed” policy – implicate the statute’s reasonable accommodation requirement. The court referred to applicable regulations and EEOC guidelines, which describe the kind of interactive process required under the ADA with respect to requests for reasonable accommodation. As a result, the court decided to allow this case to proceed as a class action.

This case illustrates the potential problem that can arise if an employer always requires a full release to work before allowing an injured employee to return to his/her job. Rather, following the EEOC’s approach, this court (and others) expect employers to meet with employees and applicants who believe they are capable of working and discuss their capabilities in good faith even if the employee or applicant has some work restrictions.