HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

ADA Compliance Can Entail Accommodating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Under the new, broader definition of “disability” implemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, employers must be more vigilant than ever in accommodating workers with a wide range of impairments. This includes depression-related conditions such as seasonal affective disorder, according to the Job Accommodation Network.

Seasonal Affective Disorder as a Disability

Seasonal affective disorder is often characterized by oversleeping, fatigue, feeling lethargic, irritability and lack of interest in daily activities, according to JAN. It affects half a million Americans, according to Mental Health America.

If an employee’s seasonal affective disorder rises to the level of disability, an employer may be required to provide an accommodation that allows the worker to perform the essential functions of his or her job.

A condition is a disability if it substantially limits one of the employee’s major life activities, but the regulations implementing the Amendments Act make clear that this question should not require extensive analysis.

Individualized assessments are still required but should now demand much less analysis, according to the new regulations. “[T]he term ‘substantially limits’ shall be interpreted and applied to require a degree of functional limitation that is lower than the standard for ‘substantially limits’ applied prior to the ADAAA,” the regulations state (29 C.F.R. §1630.2(j)(1)(iv)).

And at least one court agrees that seasonal affective disorder can be a disability. Last year, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s award of monetary damages to an employee with seasonal affective disorder.

Renae Ekstrand, a teacher, filed suit against her employer because it refused to move her to a classroom with windows to accommodate her condition. A district court dismissed her claims, but she appealed to the 7th Circuit.

The appeals court questioned whether an individual with fatigue, anxiety, panic attacks, uncontrollable crying and thoughts of suicide could even be qualified for an elementary teaching position — a prerequisite to proceeding with an ADA claim — but it decided to leave the question to a jury.

The jury decided that Ekstrand met the ADA’s requirements of being both: (1) disabled; and (2) qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with an accommodation. It also determined that the school failed to accommodate her disability.

The jury awarded her $2 million, a sum that eventually was reduced to meet the law’s statutory cap on damages. She ultimately received $100,000, back pay and attorneys’ fees (Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, No. 11-1949 (7th Cir. June 26, 2012)).

Accommodating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Because seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression often ameliorated by exposure to natural light, effective accommodation often will involve providing employees access to light.

In a recent online chat, JAN offered several examples of accommodations that may work for employees with seasonal affective disorder. In one case, a grocery store bagger had difficulty arriving for her morning shifts on time because her seasonal affective disorder caused her to oversleep. As an accommodation, her employer scheduled her only for afternoon shifts.

Her condition also caused her to experience fatigue and depression. To accommodate these symptoms, the employer assigned her to a work station with more sunlight.

Other accommodations for seasonal affective disorder could include breaks outside, flexible start times or a light box, JAN suggested.

For More Information

The Job Accommodation Network offers employers free, confidential guidance on workplace accommodations. Assistance is available at 800-526-7234.