Employer’s Safety Requirements Trump ADA Accommodation Request

By Alyssa Levy

As the U.S. rolls out the COVID-19 vaccine, the interplay between safety and ADA employee accommodations is on employers’ minds. How will employers deal with accommodations? ADA claims involving safety precautions may offer a glimpse into courts’ views on this matter.

For example, on December 9, 2020, the 4th Circuit held in Holmes v. Gen. Dynamics Mission Sys., No. 19-1771, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 38425, at *1 (4th Cir. Dec. 9, 2020) that an employee did not meet the ADA’s definition of a “qualified individual” because she could not comply with a valid safety requirement for her position. The employer (and OSHA) required employees to wear steel-toed shoes as protection from accidents involving heavy equipment and machinery. The employee, however, suffered from a medical condition (diabetes) that prevented her from wearing such inflexible footwear, as it put her at risk of causing foot sores or ulcerations that could potentially threaten her life or lead to amputation. The Court found that the employer’s right to require its employees to follow a valid safety rule trumped the ADA’s reasonable accommodation provision. This means that for employees to qualify as part of an ADA protected class, they must still be able to comply with their employers’ safety requirements.

In 2020, employers wrestled with this ADA accommodation issue in regard to safety requirements such as wearing masks. As employers plan for employees to return to work in 2021, the analysis from Holmes might be applied towards employees requesting an accommodation from an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement. Employers will need to decide whether to mandate vaccinations and how—or if—they can accommodate an unvaccinated employee. Other jurisdictions may weigh in on the issue, but for now, employers are still tasked with balancing employee safety with ADA accommodation requests.