When we think of employment discrimination involving disabled individuals, we understandably think of termination, refusal to hire, or other adverse actions based on the employee’s disability. Sometimes, however, employers may make employment decisions based on the status of people around the employee rather than the specific employee. An employee or candidate who has a sick or disabled spouse, child, or parent, for example, may raise an employer’s fears that the worker may lack the needed focus for their job or miss work frequently to deal with caregiving obligations. But employment decisions based on the disability of a person associated with an employee are just as prohibited as those premised on an employee’s disability and run equally afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What Is “Associational Discrimination”?

The fundamental employment discrimination directive of the ADA is that an employer cannot “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability” regarding job application procedures, hiring, advancement, discharge, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

Included in the ADA’s definition of the term “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability” is:

“excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.”

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the purpose of this “associational discrimination” provision is “to prevent employers from taking adverse actions based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about individuals who associate with people who have disabilities.”

The “Association” Can Be With Anyone, not Just Family Members

These “stereotypes and assumptions” typically relate to the perceived mental, emotional, and practical burdens that an employee may bear because of a loved one’s disability. Typical examples involve an employee whose child has a disability or an employee’s parent with a chronic illness. Employers cannot make employment decisions based on their presumption that the applicant or employee will be away from work excessively or be otherwise distracted or unreliable.

Associational discrimination may also involve unfounded concerns about an employee who associates with someone with an illness that presents no actual risk of transmission by the employee, such as HIV/AIDS. Additionally, employers cannot deny an employee health care coverage available to other employees because of the disability of someone covered as a dependent. But employers do not have an obligation to provide additional coverage or benefits for a disabled dependent beyond those included in their existing plan.

Notably, the association need not be with a family member to be protected under the ADA. The disabled person could be a roommate, friend, or neighbor. The key, according to the EEOC, is “whether the employer is motivated by the individual’s relationship or association with a person who has a disability.”

“Reasonable Accommodations” for the Disability of an Employee’s Associate

The ADA’s “reasonable accommodation” requirement does not apply when the disabled person is someone other than the employee. Only qualified candidates and employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodation. This means that the ADA does not require an employer to modify its leave policy for an employee who needs to take additional time off to care for a child with a disability, for example. 

If You Have Questions Regarding Your Employment Rights Under the ADA, Speak With an Employment Lawyer Today

The ADA provides robust protections for individuals who suffer employment discrimination because of a disability, including discrimination based on a friend or loved one’s disability. If you have questions regarding your employer’s ADA obligations or have any other employment-related concerns about your rights, please contact the employment law attorneys at Sommers Schwartz today. 

Tad T. Roumayah

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Tad T. Roumayah

Tad Roumayah focuses his practice primarily on employment litigation, representing employees who have encountered discrimination, retaliation, wrongful discharge, whistleblower protection claims, wage and hour violations and other employment issues and disputes.