Q&A on the Interplay Between Workers’ Compensation, FEHA and ADA

California’s Workers’ Compensation Act, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all offer distinct procedures and remedies for claims made by disabled employees in the workplace. While many aspects of workers’ compensation claims are handled by the employer’s insurer, FEHA and ADA claims trigger an obligation for the employer to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be provided that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. Since many workers’ compensation claims ultimately lead to FEHA or ADA disputes, it is important to understand the subtle distinctions between the various legislative schemes and how they interact. Below are some common questions from employers about how to navigate the potential overlap between workers’ compensation laws, the FEHA and the ADA.

Q: Why are there so many laws covering disability discrimination in the workplace? What are the important differences? 

A: Understanding the history of the various laws helps to answer this question. California’s workers’ compensation laws have existed, in one form or another, for almost 100 years. They were designed to strike a bargain between employees who were vulnerable to injury and their employers, who were potentially subject to devastating liability. Under the compromise, employers assumed liability for workplace injury regardless of their fault, and in return, employees gave up their right to sue in court. The ultimate goal of workers’ compensation laws (and one that is particularly important in times of high unemployment) is to return the employee to work. The FEHA and ADA, by contrast, are civil rights laws that were enacted specifically to combat discrimination. (The FEHA predates the ADA and is slightly broader in scope, as discussed below.) As such, each law provides its own remedies, corresponding to the policy behind the legislation.

Historically, workers’ compensation claims were an employee’s exclusive remedy for disability discrimination. Section 132a of the California Labor Code specifically prohibits discrimination against an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim. In 1998, however, the California Supreme Court ruled that disabled workers may pursue any and all remedies available to them under the law, including those provided for in the FEHA and ADA. This is important because these statutes can offer very broad remedies not available under the workers’ compensation laws, including front pay, unlimited compensatory damages, attorney fees, and, potentially, punitive damages. Of course, employees can’t get “double recovery” under both workers’ compensation and the FEHA or ADA. However, settlement of a workers’ compensation claim does not prevent the employee from bringing a later FEHA claim – so an employer can’t assume it has exhausted its liability just because it settled a workers’ compensation claim.

Q: What employers are covered under the various laws? 

A: California’s workers’ compensation laws apply broadly to all employers within the state. The FEHA applies only to entities with at least five employees, and the ADA applies only to entities with at least 15 employees. If you are a small employer, be sure you are clear on who counts as an “employee” – anyone owning a share of the organization or exercising significant control over it may not qualify as an employee for purposes of ADA or FEHA coverage.

Q: What is the definition of a “disability”? 

A: This is a surprisingly complicated question. “Disability” has distinct meanings under workers’ compensation laws, the FEHA, and the ADA. Under workers’ compensation, a “disabled” employee is any employee who has suffered a workplace injury that restricts the worker’s ability to perform the job. The FEHA, by contrast, specifically defines disability as an “impairment that limits an individual’s ability to participate in a major life activity,” which California courts construe broadly to include anything that makes achievement of job functions difficult. The ADA defines the term more rigidly as an impairment that “substantially limits” a major life activity. As a result, a condition that constitutes a disability under workers’ compensation may not necessarily qualify as one under the FEHA or the ADA. For example, an employee might be able to file a workers’ compensation claim for even a relatively minor workplace injury (and for any discrimination resulting from it), but unless the injury limited a major life activity, relief under the FEHA or ADA would be unavailable.

Q: What is a “major life activity”? 

A: The ADA states that major life activities “include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” However, this list is not meant to be exhaustive and there has been extensive litigation over what qualifies as a major life activity.

Q: What are some examples of reasonable accommodations? 

A: California employers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, unless the employer can demonstrate that an undue hardship precludes it from doing so. The accommodation must allow the employee to perform the job effectively. Common examples of accommodations include remodeling the workplace to make it accessible to the employee, limiting the employee’s working hours and/or providing more breaks, restructuring the job, providing an extended leave of absence or, if necessary, transferring the employee to another (vacant) position within the organization where the disability will not interfere with the job functions.

Of course, what is “reasonable” and what constitutes an “undue hardship” will vary depending on the employer and the nature and extent of the disability at issue. “Undue hardship” is defined ambiguously as requiring “significant difficulty or expense.” Courts look to an employer’s size, resources, field and structure to determine whether the employer has met its obligations under the FEHA or ADA. Smaller employers may be expected to respond to an employee’s request more quickly, but larger employers will be presumed to have more financial flexibility.

Q: What is required of employers and employees in the interactive process? 

A: Once an employer has notice of a disability that may be impacting the employee’s ability to perform the job, the employer has a legal obligation to engage in an informal interactive process with the employee to determine if an accommodation exists that will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. This process generally begins with a simple dialogue between employer and employee, which must be meaningful and in good faith. The employee has an obligation to communicate all relevant medical information, and may not hold out for a preferred accommodation if the employer offers a reasonable alternative. Ultimately, the choice of accommodation is at the employer’s, not the employee’s, discretion.

The biggest pitfall for employers is allowing communication to break down. First-line supervisors may be dismissive of the employee’s initial complaints and fail to escalate the dialogue to Human Resources. Training on this issue is important, as a supervisor’s failure in this regard will be imputed to the employer. However, even Human Resources professionals are not immune to dropping the ball when it comes to the interactive process. An employer’s obligations are onerous and the employer should ensure that it continues its efforts to communicate with the employee until a reasonable accommodation is reached or it is determined that no reasonable accommodation is possible.

It should also be remembered that the interactive process need not be conducted in person. The process can, and often should, start when the employee is out on leave and can be accomplished through phone calls or e-mail. If the employee has retained an attorney, employers may comply with the interactive process by communicating with the attorney rather than with the employee directly. Employers would also be wise to document the entire interactive process –all documentation relating to the employee’s request for accommodation, relevant medical information, work restrictions, discussions regarding accommodation, and all communication with the employee should be retained. Where possible, have the employee acknowledge this documentation in writing.

Q: What are some proactive steps an employer can take to avoid liability relating to future workers’ compensation, FEHA, or ADA claims? 

A: Before a disability issue arises, the employer should ensure that each employee is provided with a job description containing the essential job functions. This allows for transparency and minimizes confusion over the critical functions of the job once a disability is at issue.

Training supervisors on how to deal with disabilities in the workplace is also key. Once the employee brings the issue to the supervisor’s attention, the supervisor should determine whether an injury occurred at work and ask what accommodation the employee requires. If the supervisor notices a performance problem that could reasonably be attributed to an employee’s disability but the employee has not yet notified the employer, the supervisor should (delicately) raise the issue with the employee. The employer has an affirmative duty to investigate whether a disabled employee may be reasonably accommodated. Once these preliminary steps have been taken, the supervisor should immediately report the situation to Human Resources so that the appropriate paperwork can be completed and the interactive process can be continued and effectively documented. Supervisors should not be charged with completing the interactive process on their own. Where appropriate, guidance from a legal professional should be obtained.

Finally, do not make the mistake of thinking that complying with your obligations under the workers’ compensation laws is synonymous with complying with your obligations under the FEHA or the ADA. As an employer, it is important to understand that your obligations under each of these of these statutory schemes are different and that satisfying your obligations under one may still leave you subject to significant liability under another.