Disability discrimination is one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination in the workplace. Every employer with at least 15 employees is prohibited from disability discrimination by federal law. Title VII of the 1964 Civil rights act forbids such discrimination in all forms of the employment process,  including hiring, termination and compensation.

Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) also provides helpful protection for workers with disabilities, particularly those with medical conditions and impairments that qualify.

Additionally, each state protects disabled workers from discrimination and unfair treatment from employers. Unlike federal laws against discrimination, state laws tend to have a more extensive reach, covering businesses and companies with as few as five workers.

The EEOC helps to protect disabled workers from discrimination in employment processes and from harassment and retaliation. The agency ensures that both federal and state laws can be heard and investigated before going to trial.

Family members and guardians charged with the care guidance or oversight of the affairs of disabled individuals also have rights under state and federal laws. What rights do family members of the disabled have when it comes to discrimination in the workplace?

Family Rights and Disability Discrimination: Association Discrimination

An employer has a duty to provide reasonable accommodation for employees who need to care for family with disabilities. Federal law makes this true for companies with 15 or more employees, but some states have also passed similar regulations applicable to smaller companies doing business within the state.

Earlier this year, California became one of these states. After an employer refused to grant a father leave to care for his disabled son, he sued, and the state court ruled that California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) makes it illegal to refuse such reasonable accommodation to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

The law not only provides discrimination protection for those with disabilities, but it also provides protection for those associated with someone with a disability.

In California, the Family Rights Act provides such protections for workers at companies with 50 or more workers, but the recent court decision expands this protection by placing situations like it under the protection of the FEHA. This means workers at companies with five or more workers are also protected from association discrimination under state law.

Federal Law and Association Discrimination

The ADA, federal law applying to companies with 15 or more employees in the U.S., also carries an association discrimination provision. This means most companies in the country cannot prohibit or limit the employment conditions of those who are caring for a disabled family member.

According to the EEOC, the provision could apply regardless of whether a family relationship is in place. The central focus is on whether the employer has based an adverse employment decision on an employee’s relationship or association with someone with a disability. The disability does need to be known to the employer, however, before the ADA can apply.

If a disabled employee requests reasonable accommodation, such as a change in work schedule or extra break time for a qualifying disability, the ADA requires employers to grant the request. However, the law does not require employers to provide reasonable accommodation to non-disabled employees related to or associated with a disabled individual.

This means that even if you require time off to care for your bed-ridden mother until she finds a home health nurse for home visits you may not be able to sue for disability discrimination under the ADA when your employer denies the request.

To summarize, while federal law disallows discrimination based on a personal or associational disability, it does not necessarily require an employer to accommodate an employee due to his relationship with someone with a disability.

This may seem unfair until you consider the salient point of the non-discrimination law is equal treatment under the law. The ADA makes it illegal for disabled employees and those employees associated with or related to the disabled to be treated differently from other employees because of the disability or because of the association.

In essence, you may not receive reasonable accommodation to care for a disabled family member under the ADA, but if your company grants leave to employees for personal reasons as company policy, but denies your request to use the leave only after learning your reasons for the request are to care for your disabled mother, you may be able to sue for discrimination under the ADA.

What To Do If You Suspect Association Discrimination

An employee generally has 180 days after the last discriminatory incident he or she experienced in the workplace to file a claim with the local EEOC office. For state law claims, the deadline could be as much as 300 days. Check with your attorney or your state or federal EEOC office for details.

The stages in the EEOC charge filing process can vary, but generally begin with the EEOC conducting intake and investigating your claims of discrimination. The agency will analyze your claim based on state or federal law as well as the case law of previous related cases involving disability discrimination.

If the agency determines your case falls within its guidelines for representation, the EEOC can sue your company on your behalf and represent you in court. This includes leading settlement negotiations and helping to enforce judgement in your favor post-trial.

The EEOC could also release an employee to pursue the case without the agency’s help. It can issue a Right to Sue Notice which gives an employee the right to file a lawsuit for disability discrimination with the help of his or her attorney.

Association discrimination can be a bit tricky to decipher legally and requires a special expertise even among those able to practice employment discrimination law. The next time you are in need of help with a disability discrimination issue turn to a qualified employment rights attorney for best results and to get the justice you deserve.