How ordering cheesesteaks can help employers with disability-accommodation requests

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In Philadelphia, we’re known for certain things, such as cheesesteaks. Ordering the cheesesteak is a bit of an art form. For example, I could order a “Cheese steak, with Cheez Whiz and fried onions.” 

Or, I could simply say, “Cheese wit.” As most anyone around her knows that Cheez Whiz is the default “cheese” and “wit” means “with fried onions.

[Those of you who are giving me that disdainful Cheez Whiz stink face through your computer — right back at ya, when you order the “Philly Cheesesteak” on your local dinner menu. For there is nothing “Philly” or “Cheesesteak” about that sludge, right down to the Swiss cheese and mayo. Ya heathen!]

Like ordering a cheesesteak, your workplace has similar buzzwords that may mean something more. 

For example, I could go into HR and request leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Or, I could simply tell HR that I have cancer and need time off for chemotherapy. And even though I never utter the letters F-M-L-A, I have certainly done enough be afforded FMLA protections.

And the same holds true under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That is, once an employer learns that an employee has a disability, it then has an affirmative obligation to discuss reasonable accommodations with that employee. Indeed, a recent federal court case reminds us that an employee does not need to use the words “disability” or “ADA” or “accommodation” to trigger this employer response:

The threshold question is whether Suvada successfully triggered GFC’s duty to engage in the interactive process. GFC suggests in its opening brief that Suvada did not trigger its duty to accommodate because at the time Suvada told Slouka of her diagnosis, she had no treatment plan, was not subject to any medical restrictions, and did not mention what type of cancer she had. Therefore, the Defendant’s argument goes, GFC could not have engaged in any meaningful interactive process because Suvada had not informed GFC of her purported accommodation needs. But the law requires very little of the employee to trigger the employer’s duty to engage in the interactive process; all that is required is that the employee notify the employer of her disability. Here, Suvada told Slouka that she had been diagnosed with cancer, which is enough to put GFC on notice of Suvada’s disability and ask follow-up questions.

Facts like these present several takeaways for employers:

  1. Make sure that your employee handbook educates disabled employees about how to request a workplace accommodation;
  2. Train managers to identify these inquiries, especially when the accommodation request is less than obvious; and
  3. Recognize when leave requests may overlap both the FMLA and ADA, thereby triggering independent obligations under each statute.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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  • Courtney Allison

    Lol! What a creative approach to a difficult topic. Thank you for promoting ethical work environment for the disability community.

    And thank you for warning me never to use the word “cheez wiz” in Philly.

    All my best,
    Courtney