Best Ohio Disability Discrimination Attorney Answer: What if I have a food allergy and I am exposed to the allergen at work? Can I ask my employer to make an accommodation to limit my exposure to the food allergen? What should I do if I was fired today because of my food allergy?
Anyone with a school-aged child knows how widespread food allergies are among children. Most, if not all schools, have specific rules when it comes to what kind of food is served and even allowed to be brought in to help prevent children with food allergies from having a serious reaction. Much less is known about the rights adults with food allergies have when it comes to limiting his or her exposure at work. Is someone considered disabled if they have a food allergy that can be easily triggered if they even come near the food allergen? If he or she is considered disabled under Ohio law, what does an employer have to do to make sure the employee is safe at work?
Unfortunately, the law is less than crystal clear when it comes to how an employer specifically has to deal with an employee with a food allergy. The first analysis that needs to be completed to determine whether an employee with a food allergy must be accommodated is deciding whether someone with a food allergy is considered disabled. To be considered “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA“), an employee must have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 1202(1). This does not expressly include food allergies, however, “major life activities” include “eating” and “breathing.” Moreover, as our employment discrimination attorneys have previously blogged about, since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAA”) on September 25, 2008, the definition of “disability” greatly expanded beyond that which was previously allowed under the ADA. (See ADA: Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) Is A Disability; Is Morning Sickness A Disability For Pregnant Employees?; Disability Discrimination: A Broken Leg Is A Disability Under ADA; Top Disability Discrimination Lawyer Reply: Can I Be Refused A Restaurant Job Because I’m HIV Positive?;and Top Disability Discrimination Lawyer Reply: Is Drug And Alcohol Addiction Covered By The ADA?).
Individuals with food allergies certainly suffer from physical impairments that may substantially limit their abilities to eat and/or breathe. Indeed, food allergies (most famously peanut allergies) can trigger medical symptoms even without consuming the allergic substance. Employees with a peanut allergy can suffer serious allergic reactions from simply breathing peanut dust. These reactions can certainly limit someone’s ability to eat and/or breathe. And, under the ADA, employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to an employee or job applicant with disability, including making a change to the job environment.
Since it appears from the language of the ADA, and even more likely under the ADAA, that someone with a food allergy would be considered “disabled,” is an employer required to accommodate an employee with a food allergy? For example, if someone with a severe peanut allergy shares a cubicle with a co-worker who has a routine of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich each day at lunch, would the employer be required to accommodate the employee by moving cubicles or even outlawing PB&Js in the workplace?
In 2009, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ“) received a complaint that Lesley University violated Title III of the ADA (its public accommodations provision) by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for students with food allergies in its food service and meal plan system. The DOJ concluded that there were violations and reached a settlement agreement, found here, contains instructive language and a FAQs page titled “Questions and Answers About the Lesley University Settlement and Potential Implications for Individuals with Food Allergies.”
While this settlement isn’t binding case law, it suggests how similar cases will be may be decided when confronted with such a case. The DOJ’s settlement seems to suggest that, at the very least, an employer must perform an “interactive process” to determine whether it can reasonably accommodate an employee’s food allergy.
If the accommodation is as simple as moving an employee’s desk or cubicle to limit his or her exposure to food allergens, then the ADA would require the employer to undertake the reasonable accommodation. When it comes to outright banning certain foods from the workplace, case law is largely silent and for now, this type of accommodation would be handled on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, even though this issue has been largely absent from disability discrimination case law, it is clear that those with food allergies are absolutely protected under the ADA and are entitled to legal protections that would prevent an employer from ignoring or terminating an employee because of his or her food allergy.
Lastly, the anti-retaliation and discrimination provisions of the ADA would prevent an employer from firing an employee when the boss finds out about the food allergy or terminating the employee in response to a request for a workplace accommodation for the disability.
Having to live with a disability is difficult enough without worrying about the effect it may have on your job. If you are disabled or your employer perceives you as being disabled; and you have been fired, wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, demoted, wrongfully disciplined, denied wages, or even think that you might need a disability discrimination lawyer, then call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. Call our Ohio employment law attorneys at 866-797-6040. The best option is not to wait. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting disabled employees’ rights under ADA and Ohio employment law.
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