Supreme Court Rules Workers With Health Risks Can Be Denied Dangerous Jobs
The Supreme Court ruled unaminously yesterday that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require employers to hire workers "whose mental or physical handicap might endanger their own health or safety on the job," the Christian Science Monitor reports (Richey, Christian Science Monitor, 6/11). Writing for the court, Justice David Souter rejected the arguments of disability advocates and upheld a regulation issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission expanding on the ADA. The regulation allows employers to evaluate a worker's potential "threat to self" in making hiring decisions (Greenhouse, New York Times, 6/11). The ruling "makes clear that employers can turn away people who want a job even if they would be risking their lives to do it." It could also "make it easier to fire disabled people who already have jobs that put their health in jeopardy" (Gearan, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/11).
Yesterday's decision centered on Mario Echazabal, a former worker for an independent contractor at a Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo, Calif. After Echazabal applied to work directly for the company at the refinery, Chevron made him a conditional offer of employment but then withdrew it after a physical exam revealed that he had hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease. Citing the opinion of medical experts that the job would jeopardize Echazabal's life because it would expose him to toxic chemicals, Chevron revoked its offer and asked the contractor not to let him work in the refinery anymore (Bloomberg News/Washington Times, 6/11). Echazabal then sued under the ADA, stating that Chevron had "unfairly discriminated" against him because of a disability and that "his health was good and that he was capable of doing the job." The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Echazabal, noting that the 1990 statute does not contain a threat to self provision (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 6/11). But Souter wrote, "The EEOC was certainly acting within the reasonable zone when it saw a difference between rejecting workforce paternalism and ignoring specific and documented risks and to the employee himself, even if the employee would take his chances for the sake of getting a job" (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 6/11). Souter added, however, that companies cannot use broad "stereotypes" to reject disabled applicants but instead must make hiring decisions based on a "reasonable medical judgment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job."
Disability advocates criticized the decision, saying it would encourage "paternalism" by employers and "encourage [them] to reject job applicants with all manners of disabilities" (Los Angeles Times, 6/11). Business groups, on the other hand, "hailed the ruling." Ann Elizabeth Reesman, general counsel of the Equal Employment Advisory Council, called it a "victory for common sense" (Lane, Washington Post, 6/11). Yesterday's decision marks the court's seventh straight ADA ruling in the past four years in favor of employers. Earlier this year, the court ruled that workers with repetitive stress injuries are not entitled to protections under the ADA, and last month the court said that disability claims cannot trump seniority systems (Los Angeles Times, 6/11). The opinion in Chevron USA Inc. v. Echazabal is available online at online. Note: You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the report.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.