Handling Employees and Applicants Who Cannot Perform An Essential Job Function

April 3, 2017

Topics: Disability and Leave Obligations

Can a down quilt manufacturer terminate a seamstress who develops an allergy to down feathers? Can a retail store reject a cashier applicant who has a phobia about handling cash?

The federal appeals court in New York recently answered a similar question in favor of the employer in a case involving a pharmacist who was required to give flu shots and who had a documented fear of needles.

Before we discuss the pharmacists’ case, let’s review a little background about the law.

Federal and state laws protect employees with disabilities, as defined by those laws, from discrimination on the basis of those disabilities. They also allow disabled persons to request reasonable accommodations in the workplace that would help the employee perform the job notwithstanding the disability.

A reasonable accommodation is a change to a job condition, equipment or workplace that would give a disabled person the opportunity to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer is not required to allow the employee to get out of performing an essential function.

In some situations, the essential functions of the job are obvious. A seamstress in a down quilt factory must be able to sew pieces of down quilts and thus handle being around down feathers. A cashier must be able to handle cash. A graphic artist must be able to produce graphics. A musician must be able to play the instrument they are hired to play.

If a disabled person cannot perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations, they are not qualified for the job. If there is no reasonable accommodation that would enable the allergic seamstress to work on down quilts or enable the cash-phobic job applicant to work as a cashier, they most likely need not be employed.

How about the pharmacist? In the recent case, the pharmacy adopted a new policy requiring their pharmacists to be certified to administer vaccinations such as the flu shot. This pharmacist submitted documentation from his doctor showing that he had a fear of needles and could faint or become sick around needles, potentially causing harm to himself or the patient.

The federal appeals court found that the pharmacy could fire the pharmacist because he could not, even with an accommodation, fulfill an essential function of his job. In other words, there was nothing they could do that would allow the pharmacist to give shots to customers, let alone be around other pharmacists who were doing so.

It is important to note that the employer here was assisted in the case because it had a company policy making clear that an essential function of the pharmacist job was giving shots.

The take-away is that employers should have written documents, whether job descriptions or company policy, setting forth all essential functions of the jobs so there is no question what is required. Statements such as “and other related functions as assigned by the employer” can be helpful, too.

Employers should consult with counsel regarding any issues regarding disabilities and reasonable accommodations, to best ensure that they are complying with the requirements of federal, state and local laws.