Hunting ADA Violations
Litigation brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in connection with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act has risen since 2014, and outcomes show that juries usually sympathize with the worker.
Rulings favorable to the employee in these cases jumped from 4,981 in 2014 to 6,069 in 2015.
Since 2011, the EEOC filed more than 200 lawsuits involving claims of disability discrimination, through which it has recovered approximately $52 million, according to statistics compiled by the commission.
The primary driver of this activity, said Terri Rhodes, executive director of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, is increased strategic enforcement of the ADA by the Department of Labor and the EEOC.
“They have intensified an initiative to do more employer site visits, so litigation can come out of that,” she said.
Regulators aren’t just focusing on high-risk industries either. EEOC stats show that every sector is vulnerable to this sort of lawsuit, from manufacturing and construction to retail and hospitality.
“There’s also increased public awareness around disability discrimination, which lends itself to more lawsuits,” Rhodes said.
“The rise in claims is also due in part to the amendments to the ADA which went into effect in 2009,” said Justin Eller, a principal in the labor, employment, benefits and immigration practice group at Miles & Stockbridge PC.
“It broadened the definition of disability, thus making it easier to make a claim because more people are covered.”
The increased frequency of claims could also be the result of more people staying in the workforce longer. With older workers, there is an increased likelihood of medical conditions that necessitate disability leave or accommodations, Eller said.
Whatever the impetus for a discrimination claim, companies often find themselves susceptible to a lawsuit for one of two reasons: not engaging in the interactive process, or not applying processes consistently across workers’ compensation and disability management programs.
Employers’ shortcomings in these two areas may be so slight that they don’t realize they’ve fallen afoul of the ADA until a claim is filed.
For example, if an employer waits for an employee to come forward with a request for an accommodation, the EEOC may deem that as a failure on the part of the employer because it is incumbent upon the employer to reach out proactively when it recognizes a potential need for an accommodation.
“Once you’re on notice that an employee may need an accommodation, there’s an affirmative duty to start the process,” Eller said.
Even if an initial request for accommodation presents an undue hardship on the employer, there remains an obligation to continue the discussion to find a reasonable compromise.
“You can’t just deny it and move on,” he said.
Lack of consistent processes also creates vulnerable targets for injured employees who feel they were not treated fairly.
If, for example, a light duty position is offered to a worker injured on the job as part of a transitional program, a similar option must also be offered to employees with a non-occupational injury.
“Workers’ comp folk tend to forget that there are employment practices around engaging in the interactive process, as far as initiating that and making sure reasonable accommodations are made when possible,” Rhodes said.
“They also should be connecting with their HR counterparts to make sure treatment of workers’ comp claimants does not differ from treatment of those with non-occupational illness or injury.”
The DOL and EEOC don’t recognize organizational silos between workers’ comp and HR functions when it comes to disability management.
During on-site visits, the EEOC looks to see how leave policies are communicated to employees, checking for consistency in the timing and language of communication.
If workers’ comp, HR, and risk management aren’t on the same page, it raises a red flag. Discrepancies among policies mean there is a higher likelihood of noncompliant treatment of an injured or disabled employee.
Fines levied for ADA violations are “significant,” Rhodes said, “usually commensurate with the size of the company.”
If an allegation of discrimination turns into a lawsuit, employers could be looking at a price tag of “several hundred thousand dollars,” Eller said.
“[The amendments to the ADA] broadened the definition of disability, thus making it easier to make a claim because more people are covered.” — Justin Eller, principal, labor, employment, benefits and immigration practice group, Miles & Stockbridge PC
“It’s not cheap to take a case to trial. Depending on the nature and scope of the allegation, number of witnesses and other factors, there can be a very significant cost involved,” he said.
“There are hidden costs as well. From a time standpoint, litigation takes up an inordinate amount of time for the individuals involved.”
Reputation typically takes a hit, too. Some employers who believe they are in the right opt to take a case to trial in order to defend their name, but drawing attention to the allegations against them may undermine those efforts in the long run.
Staying Ahead of the Risk
Complying with the ADA can be challenging given its intersection with other employee laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and state workers’ compensation statutes — especially since those regulations are always evolving.
“Staying up-to-date and modifying practices is an ongoing process that requires a lot of resources and attention, which is especially difficult for small companies,” Eller said, “but there are certainly steps everyone can take to protect their organization.”
Those steps include implementing a written policy regarding accommodation of disabilities and communicating it to all employees.
All supervisors should also be trained to identify issues and notify decision-makers in HR so that the interactive process can be kicked off proactively.
“I would make sure that when we had a situation, whether it’s a workers’ comp claim or disability, that we were all talking about what the process looks like and who needs to be engaged,” Rhodes said.
For smaller companies that lack a legal or risk management department, health insurance providers or disability carriers should be able to field questions about regulatory changes and what an employer should do to stay compliant.
Of course, sometimes an employer truly cannot meet an employee’s demands, despite its best efforts. In this case, documentation of the whole conversation from start to finish serves as the employer’s best defense should the employee file a discrimination claim.
“Document your process along the way and make sure you do that for every person,” Rhodes said.
“Not every situation is the same, but your process should be the same in every case.
“It’s not difficult to comply when you understand what actions need to be taken; the problem is that employers are caught off-guard, and it’s hard to recover once you’ve been spotlighted,” Rhodes said. &
Workers’ Compensation Conference Program Released
Savvy employers have increasingly adopted injured-worker advocacy and engagement strategies to help employees overcome fears and challenges encountered when navigating workers’ compensation systems.
“The workers’ compensation claim process can be confusing and intimidating,” said William Wainscott, manager, workers’ comp and occupational health at International Paper.
“For the injured employee there are a lot of unknowns. An advocate helps alleviate the fears and guides them through all the issues.”
Wainscott will speak on an employer panel discussing injured-employee advocacy and engagement programs at the 25th Annual National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Conference® & Expo scheduled for Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 in New Orleans.
Minimizing a workplace injury’s impact on employees, their families and employers requires helping the injured worker access the right resources and understand their role in the recovery and return-to-work process, he said.
Wainscott is an NWCDC program co-chair and helped develop the conference’s 2016 agenda.
The agenda highlights other planned presentations featuring employers discussing leading-edge strategies for mitigating workers’ comp and disability challenges.
“We have put together a really strong agenda with topics that are meaningful for employers and other payer groups like insurance companies and third-party administrators,” said Denise Algire, who is also an NWCDC program co-chair and director of managed care and disability corporate risk at Albertsons Cos.
Addressing mental health factors impacting the recovery of workers’ comp and disability claimants is another focus of conference sessions developed to help meet growing employer and claims payer interest in the topic.
“Mental illness affects both workers’ comp and non-occupational disability,” Algire said.
Historically, there has been tremendous stigma around the topic, but more employers now understand that mental health issues impact absenteeism and productivity.
“There is more emphasis on this as organizations realize that the No. 1 reason for short-term disability claims is either depression or some other mental illness,” Algire added.
“So talking about it and understanding what solutions and options are available for employees, and how to implement those programs within your organization is an important conversation.”
Algire will also speak as part of the NWCDC panel discussing injured-employee advocacy programs.
In addition to Algire and Wainscott, the panel will include Kimberly George, senior VP and senior healthcare advisor at Sedgwick Claims Management Services, and Scott Daniels, director of disability at Comcast.
Daniels will also speak as part of another panel titled “Mental Matters: How Mental Health Impacts Productivity and Performance.”
That is not the only conference presentation on mental health issues.
Donna Morrison, corporate healthcare director at UPS, will join Michael Lacroix, associate medical director of behavioral health at Aetna Life Insurance and Coventry Workers’ Comp Services, to deliver a presentation titled “Advances in Behavioral Health Disability Claims Management Strategies.”
In total, the conference features 31 breakout sessions, two general sessions, and a keynote address delivered by Tim East, director of corporate risk management at The Walt Disney Co.
During his presentation titled “Fueling Injury Recovery with Engaged Workers,” East will discuss how technology trends impact workers’ expectations for how employers engage them.
Worker engagement and solutions for mental health’s impact on claim duration are not the only topics awaiting NWCDC attendees.
Other sessions will offer strategies to address opioid prescribing, Medicare set-aside requirements, Americans with Disabilities Act mandates, and insurance arrangements.
The conference will also present several case studies including:
- A look at the multidisciplinary approach applied by manufacturer Mohawk Industries to launch a health and safety program.
- The strategies Columbus Consolidated Government employed to develop an award-winning return-to-work program.
- How American Airlines fostered a claims-closure culture to resolve complex legacy claims.
Those are only a few of the topics employers and service providers will present at this year’s conference, recognized as the workers’ comp industry’s must-attend event of the year.
Your Workers’ Safety May Be at Risk, But Can You See the Threat?
Deadly violence at work is covered extensively by the media. We all know the stories.
Last year, ex-reporter Bryce Williams shot and killed two former colleagues while they conducted a live interview at a mall in Virginia. In February of this year, Cedric Larry Ford opened fire, killing three and injuring 12 at a Kansas lawn mower manufacturing company where he worked. Also in 2015, 14 people died and 22 were wounded by Syed Farook, a San Bernardino, California county health worker, and his wife, who had terroristic motives.
Active shooter scenarios, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence at work.
“Workplace violence is much broader and more pervasive than that. There are smaller acts of violence happening every day that directly impact organizations and their employees,” said Bertrand Spunberg, Executive Risks Practice Leader, Hiscox USA. “We just don’t hear about them.”
According to statistics compiled by the FBI, the chance that any business will experience an active shooter scenario is about 1 in 457,000, and the chance of death or injury by an active shooter at work is about 1 in 1.6 million.
The fact that deadly attacks — which are relatively rare — get the most media attention may lead employers to underestimate the risk and dismiss the issue of workplace violence as media hype. But any act that threatens the physical or psychological safety of an employee or that causes damage to business property or operations is serious and should not be taken lightly.
“One of the core responsibilities that any organization must fulfill is keeping employees safe, and honoring that duty is becoming more challenging than ever,” Spunberg said.
“Workplace violence is much broader and more pervasive than that. There are smaller acts of violence happening every day that directly impact organizations and their employees. We just don’t hear about them.”
— Bertrand Spunberg, Executive Risks Practice Leader, Hiscox USA
Desk Rage and Bullying: The Many Forms of Workplace Violence
Bullying, intimidation, and verbal abuse all have the potential to escalate into confrontations and a physical assault or damage to personal property. These violent acts don’t necessarily have to be perpetrated by a fellow employee; they could come from a friend, family member or even a complete stranger who wants to target a business or any of its workers.
Take for example the man who killed three workers at a Colorado Spring Planned Parenthood in April. He had no affiliation with the organization or any of its employees, but targeted the clinic out of his own sense of religious duty.
Companies are not required to report incidents of violence and many employees shy away from reporting warning signs or suspicious behavior because they don’t want to worsen a situation by inviting retaliation. It’s easy, after all, to attribute the occasional surly attitude to typical work-related stress, or an office argument to simple personality differences that are bound to emerge occasionally.
Sometimes, however, these are symptoms of “desk rage.”
According to a study by the Yale School of Management, nearly one quarter of the population feels at least somewhat angry at work most of the time; a condition they termed “chronic anger syndrome.” That anger can result from clashes with fellow coworkers, from the stress of heavy workloads, or it can overflow from family or financial problems at home.
Failure to recognize this anger as a harbinger of violence is one key reason organizations fail to prevent its escalation into full-blown attacks. Bryce Williams, for example, had a well-documented track record of volatile and aggressive behavior and had already been terminated for making coworkers uncomfortable. As he was escorted from the news station from which he was terminated, he reportedly threatened the station with retaliation.
Solving Inertia, Spurring Action
Many organizations lack the comprehensive training to teach employees and supervisors to recognize these warning signs and act on them.
“The most critical gap in any kind of workplace violence preparedness program is supervisory inertia, when people in positions of authority fail to act because they are scared of being wrong, don’t want to invade someone’s privacy, or fear for their own safety,” Spunberg said.
Failing to act can have serious consequences. Loss of life, injury, psychological harm, property damage, loss of productivity and business interruption can all result from acts of violence. The financial consequences can be significant. In the case of the San Bernardino shootings, for example, at least two claims were made against the county that employed the shooter seeking $58 million and $200 million.
Although all business owners have a workplace violence exposure, 70 percent of organizations have no plans in place to avoid or mitigate workplace violence incidents and no insurance coverage, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.
“Most companies are vastly underprepared,” Spunberg said. “They don’t know what to do about it.”
Small- to medium-sized organizations in particular lack the resources to develop risk mitigation plans.
“They typically lack a risk management department or a security department,” Spunberg said. “They don’t have the internal structure that dictates who supervisors should report a problem to.”
With its workplace violence insurance solution, Hiscox aims to educate companies about the risk and provide a solution to help bridge the gap.
“The goal of this insurance product is not so much to make the organization whole again after an incident — which is the usual function of insurance — but to prevent the incident in the first place,” Spunberg said.
Hiscox’s partnership with Control Risks – a global leader in security risk management – provides clients with a 24/7 resource. The consultants can provide advice, come on-site to do their own assessment, and assist in defusing a situation before it escalates. Spunberg said that any carrier providing a workplace violence policy should be able to help mitigate the risk, not just provide coverage in response to the resultant damage.
“We urge our clients to call them at any time to report anything that seems out of ordinary, no matter how small. If they don’t know how to handle a situation, expertise is only a phone call away,” Spunberg said.
The Hiscox Workplace Violence coverage pays for the services of Control Risks and includes some indemnity for bodily injury as well as some supplemental coverage for business interruption, medical assistance and counseling. Subvention funds are also available to assist organizations in the proactive management of their workplace violence prevention program.
“Coverage matters, but more importantly we need employees and supervisors to act,” Spunberg said. “The consequences of doing nothing are too severe.”
To learn more about Hiscox’s coverage for small-to-medium sized businesses, visit http://www.hiscoxbroker.com/.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Hiscox USA. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.