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Being a ‘disability-friendly’ employer has an added benefit: Reduced legal risk

Most employers know that employees are not only a critical asset but also a significant legal risk. Employees or former employees can file claims against employers, and government agencies regulating employment law also can audit and investigate employers for employment law violations.

Not only are employers at risk for judgments and fines but also investigations, lawsuits and audits are significantly disruptive to the operations of a company. Employers handle these risks by hiring human resource professionals and spending money on legal and insurance protections.

These risks are real, particularly in the area of legal compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. As a result of the complexity of the laws, employers sometimes equate hiring people with disabilities with legal risk on the theory that such hirings increase legal complication and risk.

The reality is that becoming “disability friendly” as an employer actually reduces rather than increases this legal risk. This may seem counterintuitive until you realize that courts and regulators look at an employer’s past conduct and overall compliance in analyzing legal liability in a specific situation.

For example, in a case called Alice Mendoza v. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, the court analyzed whether an employee’s position was eliminated because of her disability or because of genuine business need. In that analysis, the employer’s overall treatment of people with disabilities was considered when determining the employer’s motivation with regard to this singular employee.

Disability inclusion and accessibility is currently a hot button and heavily litigated issue, particularly in terms of access, such as website accessibility. In employment law, it matters how inclusive an employer is.

Employers who make a real effort toward disability inclusion likely will not be as vulnerable to claims of disability discrimination and exclusion. Employers seek to become more inclusive for a variety of reasons, including access to new and undertapped markets for job applicants, as well as retention of current employees, by providing a supportive environment.

However, the legal benefits should not be underestimated. Any step an employer takes to become more open to people with disabilities is a step away from legal liability.

I am privileged to serve on the governing board of a not-for-profit organization called Business Resource Network. This organization works to connect employers looking to hire suitable candidates who also happen to have disabilities. It assists in the successful placement of job applicants, helps employers understand the benefits and lower costs, and helps them connect with support networks available to employers seeking to hire people with disabilities.

Business Resource Network also hands out “Disability Friendly” awards to qualifying employers and provides education and assistance to employers toward achieving this goal.

Every year, Business Resources Network offers a one-day education event for employers looking to become more disability friendly in a variety of ways. This event, the National Disability Employment Awareness Month Celebration is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Vicki Kerkvliet is the executive director of Business Resource Network, and she encourages employers to attend the conference –even if it’s just for individual sessions. They will benefit “by learning about reasonable accommodations and the interactive process to retain their employees with disabilities and ways to become more disability friendly.” This kind of training provides not only education but also evidence of an employer’s commitment to disability inclusion. Visit sfbrn.org for additional information or to register online.

September 30, 2019

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