Help Wanted: Disability bias at work

Water is often consumed during staff meetings. The

Water is often consumed during staff meetings. The prohibition of beverages, especially if a worker has a medical condition requiring frequent drinking of water, could be a violation of the law. (Credit: iStock)

DEAR CARRIE: I work in a local public library. The administration has banned beverages during staff meetings. So we can't bring in such things as coffee or bottled water because meetings are not considered breaks. But what if the meetings last more than 30 minutes? Can the administration legally enforce such a policy?

-- Parched at Work

DEAR PARCHED: The library could be breaking the law if some of the employees affected have medical conditions requiring them to drink water frequently, said an attorney at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


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"A policy forbidding any beverages in the workplace could result in 'reasonable accommodation' requests from employees suffering from medical conditions which require frequent hydration, or who take certain medications requiring frequent water consumption," said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney in the agency's New York District Office in Manhattan. "While an employer may have a legitimate business reason for wanting to restrict liquid in certain areas of its workplace, it should respond to reasonable-accommodation requests with the intent of working out a solution which meets the needs of both the employee and the employer."

The Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, which the agency enforces, requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause an "undue hardship," for the business.

"Undue hardship means that the accommodation would be too difficult or too expensive to provide, in light of the employer's size, financial resources, and the needs of the business," she said.

I'm not sure what hardship the library would face if it had to allow beverages at a meeting. So call the EEOC for more information at 212-336-3620.

 

DEAR CARRIE: I work for a small office. All of the employees are salaried, and we get up to 20 vacation days a year, depending on our number of years on the job. We also get 10 sick days and two personal days.

Despite a decent paid-time off policy, we have an employee who regularly uses all of her paid-time off, then takes as many as 10 additional unpaid days off. The management does nothing about this, even though her absences make it difficult for employees who have to pick up her work. The company has no employee manual; so we can't look to it for guidance. Is there anything we can do about this, or if management is fine with this, is that it? -- Co-Worker MIA

DEAR CO-WORKER MIA: I don't want to minimize your concern, but this could be a more complex matter than you realize, like a chronic health problem your colleague may be battling.

"The employee may have a medical problem that the employer accommodates by providing the extra time off," said attorney Richard Kass, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Manhattan.

What's more, he said the employer may be willing to do the same for other employees.

"There doesn't seem to be any indication of unlawful discrimination, because the employer might be willing to offer the same leniency to other employees, too, and also because the employee is being docked for her extra time off," he said. "There is no law prohibiting employers from being nice to their employees, even if their leniency sometimes creates burdens on other employees."

I think it's a shame the company doesn't show more sensitivity to your plight and get you and your co-workers some extra help. But Kass said you should butt out on this one.

"From the legal point of view," he said, "this falls under the category of none of your beeswax." For more on laws prohibiting disability discrimination go to http://1.usa.gov/1arPGGu and http://bit.ly/HmCh88