HR Management & Compliance

Disability Discrimination: Do You Have To Accommodate Workers With Weight-Lifting Limits?

Suppose a doctor orders one of your workers not to lift anything over 25 pounds and, as a result, the employee can’t perform certain job duties. If the person demands an accommodation, must you provide one? At first glance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might seem to apply to this situation. But a new decision explains that a lifting restriction may not be an ADA-protected disability. Here’s what the court said and how it may apply to you.

Employee Under Doctor’s Orders

Cynthia Thompson was a registered nurse at Holy Family Hospital. Following a work-related injury, her doctor temporarily restricted her from lifting more than 25 pounds. Holy Family initially assigned her to a light-duty position. But when the doctor made the restriction permanent, the hospital concluded Thompson could no longer perform “total patient care” and placed her on a leave of absence. It notified her she could apply for another nursing position in the hospital, but when she did, she wasn’t selected.

Thompson sued, claiming Holy Family violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her lifting restrictions. The hospital, however, asked the court to throw the case out on the grounds that the limitation didn’t amount to a disability under the ADA.

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No Duty To Accommodate

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which covers California, agreed with the hospital. It explained that to be covered by the ADA, an impairment must substantially limit the employee from performing a major life activity, such as work. However, a heavy-lifting restriction that only interferes with an employee’s ability to perform one particular job-not a broad range of jobs-generally won’t amount to a substantial limitation.

Because Thompson could still perform other types of jobs in the health care industry-such as the position she later obtained selling medical equipment-the court concluded she wasn’t disabled and Holy Family had no obligation to accommodate her.

The court also rejected Thompson’s claim that she was entitled to ADA protection because the hospital regarded her as being disabled even though she wasn’t. According to the court, Thompson could not show that Holy Family viewed her as unable to perform a broad class of jobs. In fact, by informing her of other employment opportunities, the hospital demonstrated it believed she could do other work and wasn’t substantially limited by her impairment.

What You Can Do

Weight-lifting restrictions are common, and many employees with these limits might incorrectly believe they’re entitled to ADA protection. So it’s important to know how to handle these issues.

For ADA purposes, a lifting restriction of 25 pounds or more generally won’t significantly limit someone’s ability to work if they can perform other jobs. But each situation must be evaluated individually because the outcome could differ depending on the employee’s occupation and the extent of the impairment.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Determine whether the limitation impacts the employee’s ability to work. To qualify as a disability, the restriction must prevent an employee from working in a broad range of positions, not just one particular job. So, for example, a construction worker who can’t lift more than 25 pounds might not be able to perform most construction or manual labor jobs and could be covered by the ADA. But a secretary who can’t lift more than 15 or 20 pounds might be able to work in a variety of clerical or other office positions and not be protected by the ADA.
  2. Find out whether the restriction is temporary. The ADA generally doesn’t cover temporary impairments. If an employee sprains a wrist or pulls a back muscle and the doctor says not to do heavy lifting for a month, the person probably doesn’t have a protected disability. But if the injury is work-related, you may still want to provide an accommodation such as light duty to reduce your workers’ compensation costs. Also, if you don’t have sufficient details to determine whether the employee has a covered disability or whether the restrictions will be long-term, you have the right to request additional information.
  3. Look for accommodation options. If the employee’s condition is covered by the ADA, you must explore whether a reasonable accommodation exists that will allow the person to perform the essential functions of their job. To avoid hassles and expensive lawsuits when you’re unsure whether someone is disabled under the ADA, it may be best to look for a reasonable accommodation. This could include modifying the worker’s job, switching some of their duties with another employee or perhaps helping them find another position in your organization.

Remember, though, that the ADA doesn’t require you to bump another employee. And you’re not obligated to create a new job, including a light-duty position, if one doesn’t already exist.