EEOC Issues New Guidance on ADA and State Workers' Compensation Laws (Americans with Disabilities Act)

January 1, 1997 Advisory
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Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers have had to try to balance the sometimes conflicting rules under Connecticut's Workers' Compensation Act (Act) and the ADA without the benefit of any guidance from the government. Recently, however, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) issued an "Enforcement Guidance" describing the interaction between the ADA and state workers' compensation laws.

Defining a "Disability"
One recurring problem for employers has been the difference between the definition of "disability" under the ADA and the use of that term under the Act. The EEOC has now stated, as we had advised, that an employee is only disabled, for purposes of the ADA, if the employee's condition meets the ADA's definition of disability Further, simply filing a workers' compensation claim does not mean the employee has a record of a disability under the ADA. However, if the employee's injury does limit a major life activity or the employer regards the employee as being so limited, the person could be considered disabled under the ADA. For example, where the returning employee can only lift a few pounds and the employer modifies her position accordingly, the EEOC says that the employer regards her as having a disability because it sees the major life activity of lifting as being substantially impaired.

The difference in the definition of disability becomes an issue fairly often, for example when a determination has been made that an employee has a "permanent disability" or is "totally disabled" for workers' compensation benefits purposes. Many employers assume that once such a determination has been made, it no longer has a duty to permit the employee to return to work or to make reasonable accommodations because, if she is totally disabled, she clearly cannot perform the essential functions of her position. However, the EEOC has stated that the employer may not refuse to permit the employee to return to work based simply on such a determination. An employee may be totally disabled, but still be able to perform the essential functions of her position with a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC describes the example of an employee who loses the use of her legs in a workplace accident. Such an employee might be found to be totally disabled for workers' compensation purposes, according to the EEOC, but if her position was one that could be performed while seated, the employer would have to permit her to return to work.

Using Light Duty Jobs
Many employers reserve certain vacant positions as "light duty" positions to be used only by employees returning to work after a workers' compensation related injury. According to the new EEOC guidance, however, if an employee has any disability that prevents him from performing the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation, whether workers' compensation related or not, the employer must reassign him to one of these reserved "light duty" positions as a reasonable accommodation if there is no other effective accommodation available. If the employer does not maintain open "light duty" positions, it may, but does not have to, create one for a disabled employee.