New State Disability Regulations

First Quarter 2013Articles California Update

New disability regulations took effect this year for California employers with five or more employees. They include the following:

  • Examples of physical disabilities, namely “deafness, blindness, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, cerebral palsy and chronic or episodic conditions such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, epilepsy, seizure disorder, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart disease.” These examples are illustrative – not exclusive.
  • Examples of mental disabilities include “emotional or mental illness, intellectual or cognitive disability (formerly referred to as ‘mental retardation’), organic brain syndrome or specific learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and chronic or episodic conditions such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.” Also included are specific learning disabilities “manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities.”
  • Examples of the types of temporary impairments that do not merit protection, namely “the common cold; seasonal or common influenza; minor cuts, sprains, muscle aches, soreness, bruises, or abrasions; non-migraine headaches, and minor and nonchronic gastrointestinal disorders.”
  • Examples of reasonable accommodations include:
    o “[P]roviding accessible break rooms, restrooms, training rooms or reserved parking places; acquiring or modifying furniture, equipment or devices; or making other similar adjustments;”
    o Allowing use of assistive animals (more on this below);
    o “Transferring an employee to a more accessible worksite;”
    o “Providing assistive aids and services such as qualified readers or interpreters to an applicant or employee;”
    o Job restructuring (although the employer is not required to reassign essential job functions);
    o Part-time or modified work schedules;
    o Changing “when and/or how an essential function is performed;”
    o Adjusting or modifying “examinations, training materials or policies;”
    o Modifying policies or supervisory methods;
    o Providing additional training;
    o Letting the employee work from home;
    o Leaves of absence (although indefinite leaves are not required); and
    o Reassignment to a vacant position (although there is no need to create a position or disregard an established, bona fide seniority system).

Assistive Animals

  • Renewed emphasis on employees’ rights to use “assistive animals” – not just guide dogs. The requirement extends to animals that provide “emotional or other support” to people with emotional problems or brain damage. So it won’t necessarily be clear at first glance whether the animal performs a support function. Employers are entitled to set standards for service animals, such as:
    o Requiring that the animal behave appropriately in the workplace, not smell offensive and not befoul the workplace with urine and feces.
    o Prohibiting the use of animals that endanger any employee’s health or safety.
    o Requiring the animal be trained to provide assistance.
    o Requiring employees to get certification from their health care provider that they need the animal as an accommodation.

Interactive Process

  • Increased emphasis on the obligation to engage employees in a “timely, good faith interactive process” to explore possible accommodations. This obligation arises not just when an employee requests accommodation, but also when:
    o The employer becomes aware of the need for accommodation “through a third party or by observation;” and
    o Whenever an employee exhausts his or her leave under other laws, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, California Family Rights Act, or workers’ comp laws” and has not been released to return to work.

More than ever, California employers (and their managers) must be alert to the breadth of impairments that can constitute a disability and the range of accommodations that they are required to explore. Employers should also review their policies to ensure that they comply with the regulations and review their job descriptions and performance evaluation forms to clearly identify which job functions are essential. There is no doubt that expanding the employer’s obligations to this extent will result in an increase in the number of claims under these laws