Must My Employer Accommodate Me If a Family Member Is Disabled?

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Accommodating a disabled employee is part of federal law and laws in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. There are no requirements under these laws that a nondisabled family member be accommodated to help a loved one who is disabled. But depending on the facts of the situation, the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may help.

Federal Disability Law

The ADA states that disabled employees need to be accommodated if an accommodation is necessary to perform the essential functions of a job. It also states that discriminating against a disabled employee includes “excluding or otherwise denying 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 federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or EEOC, the federal agency enforcing the law’s employment sections) explains that this language means that it is illegal for an employer to make adverse employment decisions based on unfounded concerns about the known disability of a family member or anyone else with whom a job applicant or employee has a relationship or association. This includes the following actions:

  • refusing to hire someone,
  • firing an employee,
  • denying health insurance coverage,
  • denying an employee any other benefits or privileges of employment that are available to others, or
  • subjecting a person to harassment.

These protections do not include reasonably accommodating the nondisabled employee associated with someone who is disabled, but the employer must avoid treating an employee differently from other employees because of his or her association with a person with a disability. If you are associated with someone with a disability and ask for time off, reduced hours, or a changed schedule to help a disabled family member, then under the ADA, that request need not be approved because there is no obligation to accommodate you.

However, if other employees not associated with someone with a disability ask for the same thing (due to a long commute, to attend classes or for child care, for example) and their requests are granted, a violation of the ADA may have occurred because you have been denied a benefit or privilege of employment available to others.

State Disability Laws

Laws in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia do not include protections for workers associated with those with disabilities. But California state law has been interpreted by at least one state appellate court as requiring accommodation to covered employees who are associated with someone with a disability because of the unique language of the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The plaintiff in the case being reviewed, a truck driver, asked his trucking company employer for a schedule change so he could get his diabetic son to dialysis. That request was initially granted, but his schedule changed when he got a new supervisor. He filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination because of his association with his disabled son.

FEHA creates a cause of action for association disability discrimination. Generally, the law makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the physical disability of any person. FEHA’s definition of a “physical disability” includes an association with a physically disabled person.

The law defines “physical disability” as including a perception that a person is associated with a person who has or is perceived to have a physical disability. The court reasoned that when the law prohibits discrimination based on a disability, it also forbids discrimination based on a person’s association with another who has a disability.

The court reasoned that since employers need to accommodate disabled employees, and the definition of a disabled employee under California law includes an employee associated with someone with a disability, employers must accommodate employees associated with someone who has a disability.

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Family Medical Leave Laws

You may qualify for time off or a reduced schedule to care for a spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition under the FMLA. To qualify, you would have to work for one of the following:

  • a private employer with 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year;
  • a public agency, including a local, state, or federal government agency, no matter how many employees there are; and
  • a public or private elementary or secondary school, regardless of the number of employees it has.

In addition to working for this covered employer, you would have to meet the other threshold eligibility requirements:

  • you must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months,
  • you must have worked at least 1,250 hours for the employer during the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave, and
  • you must work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.

Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia have their own versions of family medical leave laws.

Summing It Up

If you are not disabled but have a relationship with someone who is and you need changes at work to help that person, then the following are true:

  • The ADA does not require such an accommodation unless someone without such an association has received such a change. Failing to grant that same change to an employee associated with a disabled person could be seen as denying a benefit or privilege of employment granted to others.
  • The FMLA and similar state laws may allow you time off or work a reduced schedule for a family member with a serious health condition, if your employer is large enough and if you have worked enough hours.

If you need help because a family member or loved one is disabled and your employer refuses to accommodate your needs, contact our office. Depending on the facts of your situation, your employer may be required to accommodate you. We can discuss the law and the best ways for you to protect your legal rights and help your loved one.