In a recent case, the federal court for the Western District of Virginia answered the question of whether an employer must exempt an employee from a requirement to wear safety equipment because she has a physical condition that prevents her from wearing the safety equipment. The court ultimately concluded that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) imposes no such requirement on an employer.
The court found that when wearing appropriate safety equipment is an essential function of the job, an employee’s inability to wear that equipment prevents them from being a “qualified individual” protected under the ADA. The court also held that an accommodation that alters the essential functions of the position is not reasonable and employers aren’t required to make exemptions for safety requirements, when those requirements are essential functions of the job.
Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc.
In Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc., Shelia Holmes filed suit claiming that her former employer, General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc., failed to reasonably accommodate her disability and terminated her because of her disability in violation of the ADA. However, the Western District of Virginia found that Holmes was unable to perform the essential functions of her job and her proposed accommodation was unreasonable.
In this case, Holmes had brachymetatarsia, which means she has several abnormally short and overlapping toes. Wearing protective footwear causes friction and ulcers on her feet, as well as swelling and circulation problems. Holmes began working for General Dynamics in 1998 and was employed there for 18 years. In her role, Holmes was exposed to a number of hazards, including the potential for heavy objects to fall or roll onto her feet and injury from electrical shocks or sharp objects. Due to those hazards, wearing protective footwear is essential to Holmes’ position.
While General Dynamics previously allowed Holmes to work in tennis shoes, after an audit found policy violations, General Dynamics stopped allowing exemptions for Holmes. General Dynamics made many attempts to find appropriate safety shoes for Holmes, without success, because Holmes stated that she couldn’t wear any safety shoes at all and could only wear loose-fitting shoes. Eventually, in 2016, the company terminated Holmes based on an inability to find protective footwear that she would wear.
The ADA protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of their disabilities. A qualified individual is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” In determining whether a job function is “essential,” the court considers factors, including: the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; written job descriptions for the job; the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; the terms of a collective bargaining agreement; the work experience of past incumbents in the job; and the current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.
General Dynamics argued that Holmes was not protected under the ADA because she was not a qualified individual, since wearing protective footwear was an essential function of her job.
The court considered that General Dynamics viewed wearing protective footwear as an essential function of the job and Holmes’ Collective Bargaining Agreement, an outside auditor’s assessment, and OSHA regulations all underscored the importance of safety shoes to protect employees from hazards. Moreover, other courts have held that when an article of clothing is an “essential safety requirement” and the plaintiff cannot wear that article of clothing because of a disability, that individual is not qualified for the position. Additionally, the fact that supervisors had previously been lax in enforcing the protective footwear policy does not prevent the company from later deciding to tighten enforcement of its safety rules. Thus, the court found that wearing the required protective gear, was an essential function of Holmes’ position.
No reasonable accommodation existed that would have allowed Holmes to perform her job safely, since she claimed that she could not wear any kind of safety shoes at all, despite General Dynamics many attempts to find alternatives. The court held that an accommodation that alters the essential functions of the position is not reasonable, so General Dynamics was not required to make an accommodation and exempt Holmes from the safety requirement.
What Does Holmes v. General Dynamics Missions Systems Mean for Employers?
In Holmes, the court provided more guidance on what may be considered an “essential function” of the job under the ADA. The court specifically addressed the issue in relation to an employer’s requirement that employees wear safety equipment when that equipment interferes with an employee’s disability. According to Holmes, if the employer has a legitimate business reason for requiring the safety equipment, such as to protect against hazards in the workplace, supported by other evidence, an employee’s inability to wear that equipment due to a disability will not be protected under the ADA. Moreover, a request for an accommodation in the form of an exemption from the safety requirements is not reasonable if wearing the equipment is an essential function of the job.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 202-360-4230. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.