Before COVID-19 hit, I felt extremely stressed at work and reached my limits emotionally, so I believed I had an anxiety disorder. I had panic attacks, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating on a regular basis, but I never spoke to a doctor about them. I was scared of the virus itself and am juggling a high pressure job while looking after two young children who go to school on Zoom. I think my symptoms are worse now than they were before the pandemic. I worry about how I will adapt if I am asked to physically return to the office and how my anxiety will affect my performance. Do I have options that will make it easier for me to get back to work?
Thank you for writing to us about this important and personal topic. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic can be described as a global traumatic event that has caused unique distress in many people while aggravating existing mental illnesses. This is especially acute with working mothers like you who are struggling with anxiety.
The general stress and anxiety we all experience from time to time about work, family life, and yes, even the pandemic, are not a disability under California law. However, anxiety disorders, depression, and related mental illnesses can be legally mandated disabilities . If your employer employs five or more people and you are classified as a qualified person with a disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (Cal. Gov. Code § 12900), you are entitled to reasonable accommodation in the workplace to perform your service Job. To be a “qualified person with a disability” you must meet the skills, experience, education and job-related requirements and be able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodation.
If you are diagnosed with a mental illness that affects your ability to carry out your essential job functions, it is important that you notify your employer as soon as possible if you want to consider work placement options. If possible, this should be done in writing.
Once notified, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act requires the employer to conduct an interactive process with the employee to make reasonable arrangements to assist the employee in performing the essential functions of his job. The key word there is “sensible”. What is considered reasonable? After the year we’ve just had, the answer isn’t as clear as it used to be.
The most obvious shift is the work-from-home regime. Nationwide regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced employers to experiment with work-from-home arrangements. Some companies failed, others flourished, and others simply corrected course. Every work environment is unique and every employer had to adapt to the pandemic in their own way. While housing from home may not have been feasible in early 2020, it can now be viewed as a more sensible option if an employer was able to successfully implement a work from home business model. However, post-pandemic work-from-home options are not possible for all businesses, and you shouldn’t assume that work-from-home accommodation is entirely appropriate for your employer. Employers cannot be forced to extend accommodations that would cause their business to suffer unreasonable damage or disrupt operations significantly.
While it may be possible to work from home or full time, reasonable accommodation can take many other forms. It may take some experimentation before you and your employer decide on something that works best for both of you. Common arrangements for intellectual disabilities include flexible scheduling, temporary leave for the employee to attend health appointments, frequent breaks, the removal of distractions, a task reminder system, and / or a quieter work environment. While you can make reasonable arrangements specific to your situation during the interactive process, employers are under no obligation to provide any accommodation that you suggest. It can often be more difficult to find work place accommodation that works for both the employer and employee when it comes to an intellectual disability compared to a physical disability. Hence, it is important to remain flexible and open-minded when engaging in the interactive process.
It is also important to know that while employers may not choose to do so, they have the right to seek medical approval from health care providers indicating what medical restrictions are in place. This helps employers determine which accommodations they can or cannot adequately accommodate. The interactive process is a one-way street and both parties must engage in good faith. If you find that your employer is deliberately ignoring your reasonable accommodation requests, refusing to participate in the interactive process, or creating unnecessary obstacles for you during the interactive process, consult an attorney to fully understand your rights .
Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan, PC law firm. Vanessa C. Deniston is a Senior Associate Attorney based in our Oakland office. We serve clients across the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email questions and topics for future articles to: [email protected]
Comments are closed.