A brewery employee suffering from a medical condition was placed on additional work restrictions by his new treating physician. Accommodating the new restrictions put the employer in a position where it had to either invest in expensive equipment or let the employee walk.
Employee Makes a Beer Run for the Brewing Industry
“Hunter” began working for A Homestead Brew, LLC, on December 1, 2016. The beer brewery, located in Sioux Falls, is owned by Janelle Johnson. Her husband, Lee Anderson, is the head brewer and owns a hops farm. Hunter’s job responsibilities included moving tanks for brewing beer, doing some carpentry work, and performing other duties assigned to him by Anderson.
Hunter routinely suffered from seizures during the time he worked at the brewery and had at least three or four seizures while he was off duty. He informed Johnson and Anderson about his condition before he was hired and specifically told Anderson that he was restricted from working at heights without a safety harness.
No Tools, No Hops, No Job
After Hunter was hired by the brewery, he started seeing a new treating neurologist who placed more medical restrictions on him. In a letter dated January 1, 2017, the neurologist advised him to avoid using ladders and power tools as well as any type of work that might be dangerous and increase his risk of injury. Because of his new medical restrictions, he was unable to perform all of his job duties.
In mid-January, Hunter told Anderson that he needed safety glasses, a face shield, safety gloves, and a safety harness if he was going to be required to use power tools. Anderson responded that he couldn’t supply all of the requested equipment, and he wouldn’t have any other available work that Hunter could perform until the hops farm was running during the summer. Whether Hunter was actually discharged or voluntarily quit his employment was disputed.
No ‘Misconduct’ In Restrictions
Hunter applied for unemployment benefits. The South Dakota Unemployment Insurance Division initially determined that he was disqualified from receiving benefits because he voluntarily quit his employment without good cause.
On appeal, the administrative law judge (ALJ) determined Anderson’s statement that he couldn’t provide the requested equipment and wouldn’t have any available work until the summer meant that Hunter had been discharged. The question was no longer whether Hunter voluntarily quit his employment without good cause, but whether his employer discharged him for work-connected misconduct, as defined by the unemployment law. A determination that he was discharged for misconduct would disqualify him from receiving unemployment benefits.
The ALJ found that Hunter didn’t fail to obey orders, substantially disregard his employer’s interests, deliberately violate any standards of behavior, or behave in a careless manner that constituted misconduct. The ALJ noted that the brewery might have had compelling business reasons to discharge Hunter, but those reasons didn’t amount to work-connected misconduct under the law. He was simply discharged because the brewery was unable to accommodate his work restrictions. For that reason, the ALJ found that he was indeed qualified to receive unemployment benefits.
Many employers are understandably overcautious when it comes to terminating an employee with a disability. Often, such a termination decision may lead to a complaint of discrimination, valid or not. The brewery legitimately couldn’t accommodate Hunter’s work restrictions and didn’t have any available work that didn’t require him to use power tools, work at heights, or both. Keeping him on the payroll until the summer, when alternative work would become available, would have meant allowing him to sit idly, which wouldn’t have made the brewery any more efficient or profitable.
It’s important to keep in mind that in addition to the discrimination component, there’s an unemployment benefits calculation to consider before you terminate an employee with a disability. Although you may pass the discrimination test if you cannot accommodate the employee without undue hardship, you may still be on the hook for unemployment benefits.