Seniority vs the ADA

Your company's seniority system ordinarily takes precedence over accommodating the needs of disabled employees, according to a Supreme Court ruling.

The case involved Robert Barnett, a baggage handler for US Airways in San Francisco who injured his back on the job. Barnett wanted a job in the mailroom but two other co-workers with more seniority also wanted the position. He sued in federal district court charging that the airline didn't make a "reasonable accommodation" for him under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (US Airways v. Barnett, No. 00-1250, April 29, 2002).

The decision may take some of the pressure off employers to make special arrangements for disabled staff members. But the court didn't give companies a green light to make promotions based solely on seniority and ignore the ADA entirely.

"In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. However, a disabled employee might be able to override a seniority rule if "special circumstances" exist. For example, in the case of a seniority system that already made many exceptions. The 5 to 4 decision is another in a series of court decisions that continues to narrow the reach of the ADA.
For example, the Supreme Court ruled earlier that a worker suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, yet still able to perform some job functions, is not disabled under the law. (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, No. 00-1089, January 8, 2002)

These rulings are seen as victories for employers. But keep in mind that the ADA is still a complex law to comply with.

Make sure managers understand what they can and cannot do under the law. If a disabled employee asks for an accommodation, you must assess whether the request is reasonable and whether it causes "undue hardship" on your company. US Airways argued that upending its established seniority system did cause such a burden.

Here are some of the factors the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looks at in its test for undue hardship:
The nature and cost of the accommodation.

The financial resources of the facility making the changes, the number of staff and effect on the resources.
The nature of the business.
The impact of the accommodation on the facility's operation.

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