Do migraine sufferers have protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act?According to the Mayo Clinic, an estimated 30 million Americans cope with migraine headaches.
By: Rebecca Bentz, J. J. Keller & Associates, Superior Telegram
According to the Mayo Clinic, an estimated 30 million Americans cope with migraine headaches.
Some — but not all — employees’ migraine headaches qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and for employers, knowing where to draw the line is anything but simple. The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) expanded what is considered a disability, and even before it went into effect, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had argued and won ADA cases where employees had migraines. A recent court case, however, might help shed light on when the condition is not protected under the law.
Not all situations protected
The case relevant to this topic involved an employee whose migraines did not directly affect her work, but did affect her outside of work. After she requested and obtained a transfer to a new position, the employee found her work more stressful. That stress caused her to suffer migraines, which on occasion, were severe enough to cause her to miss work. The employee resigned because of the migraines and because of high blood pressure, but later wished to rescind her resignation. When the employer did not allow her to take back her resignation, the employee sued, claiming wrongful termination and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for her migraines.
The employee argued that on the days she suffered migraines, she was able to make it through her workday. However, upon returning home, she took migraine medication, which caused her to fall asleep almost immediately. This left her unable to function or conduct any of the routine matters of caring for herself in the evenings, she stated.
The employer, however, argued that the employee was not disabled. The court agreed, stating that the migraines did not substantially limit the employee’s ability to work. She failed to show that she was substantially limited in caring for herself when compared to the average person. Simply asserting that she took medication and slept after getting home for an unspecified period of time was insufficient. The average person also sleeps each evening and cannot care for herself or himself while asleep, the court said in its decision.
What the ruling means
Despite the ADAAA’s expansion of what is considered a disability, there is still wiggle room in what conditions qualify. However, this case shows that situations involving migraines and other conditions will hinge on the specifics involved, including how the impairment affects an individual. The employee in this case was not substantially limited in her ability to work, but migraines can affect individuals differently. Another worker suffering from migraines might be substantially limited in his or her ability to concentrate, for example.
Additionally, the decision in this case isn’t the law of the land for all employers. The lawsuit was decided in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Other circuits might have ruled differently if presented with the same facts.
What’s an employer to do?
When an individual notifies an employer of his or her need for an accommodation, the employer is required to engage in the interactive process to determine whether an accommodation (and what type of accommodation) would be effective. Just as symptoms might vary from person to person, so too might the need for job accommodations. Here are a few common accommodation situations that could arise for people with migraines:
Improving attendance: An individual who experiences migraine headaches may have difficulty maintaining consistent attendance. Modifying attendance policies, providing flexible scheduling options, and allowing work from home may be helpful.
Maintaining concentration: Reducing visual and auditory distractions by using sound absorption panels and environmental sound machines or moving to a work area that is quieter may be effective in alleviating issues with concentration. Also, checklists, scheduled uninterrupted time, and written instructions can help an individual focus on short-term goals.
Preventing migraines: An individual who experiences migraine headaches may be able to prevent them by changes made to the work environment. Reducing visual and auditory distractions by using sound absorption panels and environmental sound machines or moving to a work area that is quieter may be effective. Also, using computer glare guards for computer monitors, replacing fluorescent lighting with full spectrum lighting, and using air purification devices can be helpful.
A final note
The final regulations implementing the ADA Amendments Act went into effect nearly a year ago. Employers need to be aware of the changes made under the ADAAA, how those changes affect them, and what to do to protect their business.
Rebecca Bentz is a human resources subject matter expert and associate editor with J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., a nationally recognized compliance resource firm. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com and www.prospera.com.