There is no question that under federal and California employment laws, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with disabilities. In fact, employers have an affirmative obligation to take reasonable steps to accommodate the needs of an employee with a disability so that the disabled employee can do his job.
The law has been less clear when it comes to an employer’s obligations arising out of the disability of someone who is associated with an employee. On the one hand, it is generally accepted that an employer may not discriminate against an employee because he is associated with someone who has a disability. For example, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee because he has a spouse or family member whose disability may somehow impact the employer, such as being on a health care plan or requiring use of FMLA or CFRA leave. But, does an employer also need to accommodate the needs of an employee based on the disabilities of someone else.
In April of 2016, the California Court of Appeal issued the first ruling on this issue and opened the door for employees to argue that they have a right to an accommodation based on the disabilities of their loved ones. In that opinion, the court reasoned that taking care of a person with disabilities is itself a disability since this person has a time-consuming obligation to take care of the disabled person, whether it be as the primary caretaker or as someone with time-specific responsibilities for the disabled person, such as administering medication at given times. Therefore, an employee may be entitled to accommodations based solely on the fact that they are associated with someone with disabilities. This new rule can be applied in conjunction with the employer’s obligation to grant medical leave under the California Family Rights Act, which allows employees time off to care for a family member.
While the implications of this ruling are not yet clear, the ruling certainly opens the door for employees who need to take of their loved one to request an accommodation from their employers.
If you believe your employer has discriminated against you for your association with a disabled person, or you believe your employer has failed to accommodate you as a person directly responsible for the caretaking of a disabled person, you should consult an employment attorney to learn your rights.