Last week, we talked about an employer’s obligations when it comes to an employee who has cancer. But what about an employee’s spouse? Does the employer have any legal obligations there?

Let’s start first with a story:

Jake and his supervisor, Alex, have had a great working relationship but lately, things seems to have changed. At least that’s how Jake sees is after he told Alex that his wife is suffering from a long-term disability — cancer.

Although Jake has been a good performer for years, Alex has recently expressed his concern that Jake will not be able to satisfy the demands of the job due to the need to care for his wife. Alex begins to set unrealistic deadlines for projects for Jake and even yells at Jake in front of co-workers about the need to meet the deadlines.

Alex also began requiring Jake to meet company policies that have never been strictly followed, such as giving 2 weeks advance notice of leave.  Now, Alex has removed Jake from team projects because Jake’s co-workers don’t think Jake can be counted on to complete his share of work “considering all of his wife’s medical problems.

Jake is frustrated. He’s complained to management but to no avail.  Now what?

At first glance, you might think this is a FMLA issue; taking time off for a family member’s serious health condition is one of the key points of the FMLA. But a deeper look shows that’s not really what’s going on.  This doesn’t have to do with leave.

Instead, it seems that the supervisor is treating an employee differently because of his relationship with someone who has a disability.   The question is — is there a legal claim?

According the EEOC, there is.

Indeed, given this above scenario, the EEOC concluded in Q&A release that “the employer is liable for harassment on the basis of [Jake’s] association with an individual with a disability.” In other words, the employee may have a claim under the ADA.

The legal basis for this is that the ADA makes it illegal for an employer to exclude  or otherwise deny “equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association”.

The regulations on the subject attempt to clarify this by stating that the ADA makes it unlawful for employer to “deny equal jobs or benefits to, or otherwise discriminate against,” a worker based on his or her association with an individual with a disability.

But the Q&A on the subject is more detailed and I recommend it to you here. 

One very important point to this should not be lost, however: This provision does not require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation because of a spouse’s disability.  So an employee who requests being given a company van to take his wife to medical appointments need not have that request considered under the ADA.

Does the ADA require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to a person without a disability due to that person’s association with someone with a disability?

No. Only qualified applicants and employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodation. For example, the ADA would not require an employer to modify its leave policy for an employee who needs time off to care for a child with a disability. However, an employer must avoid treating an employee differently than other employees because of his or her association with a person with a disability.

Employees who have spouses or loved ones going through cancer create multiple challenges in the workplace. Employers should be careful not to make matters worse by violating their legal obligations when it comes to the ADA too.

 

  • While the ADA doesn’t require that an employer accommodate an employee for that employee’s association with someone with a disability, do you agree that the non-discrimination provision may impose a de facto accommodation? For example, if an employer allows employees to take unpaid time off under certain circumstances, it cannot deny the same opportunity to an employee needing the time to take his wife-with-an-ADA-disability to a doctor’s appointment.

    • ctemploymentlawyer

      Yes. I think that is what could happen. It goes back to consistency. If you have a rule, it should be applied evenly. If the rule is outdated for all, then get rid of it because ignoring the policy for most but enforcing it for a few is a classic case of a lawsuit waiting to happen.