Last updated Aug. 31, 2017.
Under certain circumstances, employers are not required to maintain a disabled employee’s compensation or job status at their pre-disability level if they are to become disabled.
So ruled the court in Jones v. Aluminum Shapes, Inc. This 2001 decision clarifies the “reasonable accommodation” requirement of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Case Background: Jones v. Aluminum Shapes, Inc.
The plaintiff in the case, James Jones, was a long-standing union member and employed by Aluminum Shapes as a crane operator for over 25 years. In 1990, Jones suffered a work-related injury that almost completely removed his right eye. When he returned to work after recovering from eye surgery, he could no longer work as a crane operator due to diminished eyesight.
The company accommodated Jones by creating a special job for him in the quality control department. Although the position was not part of the union bargaining unit, the company allowed Jones to maintain his higher crane operator’s salary and to retain his union membership and benefits while he held this job.
Years later, the company downsized and transferred Jones out of quality control, back to a regular union position on the plant floor. After Jones objected, the company agreed to compromise by leaving Jones in quality control. Because the position was non-union, however, Jones would have to continue in the job without his union status and benefits.
Jones resigned and brought a claim for discrimination on the basis of his disability.
How does ‘reasonable accommodation’ apply here?
Under the NJLAD, an employer must make a “reasonable accommodation” to a disabled employee unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business. Jones argued that this meant the company had to provide him with a position that maintained his union status and benefits.
Jones argued the company:
- Failed to provide a reasonable accommodation by requiring him to leave the union in order to keep his non-union quality control position, and
- Did not show that it would have suffered an undue hardship in allowing Jones to continue union membership.
The court flatly rejected Jones’ position that the NJLAD required his employer to maintain him in a union job. The court held the phrase “reasonable accommodation” refers to the duty of an employer to attempt to accommodate the physical disabilities of the employee. There is no duty “on the part of the employer to acquiesce to the disabled employee’s requests for certain benefits or remuneration.” Whether Jones’ position was union or non-union was immaterial to the central issue of whether it accommodated his physical impairments.
Most significantly, the court further held that, where no lateral transfers are available, an employer is not obligated to provide a job of exactly the same status and compensation as that previously held by the employee. The court found that that an employee may in fact be demoted to a lesser-paying and lower-status position if such demotion is necessary to accommodate the employee’s disability.
Bottom Line: You are Not Guaranteed Pre-Disability Employment Status
The court’s decision in Jones vs. Aluminum Shapes, Inc. clarifies that, as interpreted by New Jersey courts, the NJLAD and the ADA do not impose an absolute requirement on an employer to maintain a disabled employee with the same level of compensation, benefits, and status. If the company can show that the only available position that reasonably accommodates an employee’s disability is one with lower pay or status, the company can lawfully place the employee in that lower job.
Under such circumstances, the employer is not obligated to change the new position’s compensation, benefits, or status in the corporate hierarchy to match that of the employee’s previous position.
Have you recently been faced with the hardship of a disability and gone back to work in New Jersey or New York? Contact us today to learn more about your rights. If you have been discriminated against or retaliated against, you may be entitled to compensation.
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