EEOC Issues Guidance for New Jersey Employment Law Regarding Disability Discrimination Based on Hearing Loss

Federal and New Jersey employment laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, which includes hearing loss. Employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with qualifying hearing impairments as long as it does not create an undue hardship. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) often differ in the scope of their protections, with state law tending to be more expansive. The definition of “disability” under federal law, in turn, tends to be more restrictive. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the ADA and other federal employment statutes, recently issued guidance on how employers may address employees or job applicants with hearing disabilities.

The NJLAD defines “disability” as a range of conditions that either “prevent[] the typical exercise of any bodily or mental functions” or can be demonstrated through “accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” The ADA’s definition depends more on how a condition affects an individual. In order to qualify as a disability under the ADA, a condition must “substantially limit[] one or more major life activities.”

When an employee with a qualifying disability requests an accommodation, the employer must consider whether providing that accommodation would pose an undue hardship. They must work with the employee to find the best way to help them perform their job duties. Factors that employers may consider during this process include the cost of a requested accommodation and the effect it will have on the workplace, other employees, and the employer’s business.

The EEOC’s guidance notes that individuals with hearing impairments “should easily be found to have a disability” as the ADA defines the term. The challenge for employers often comes when a hearing-impaired employee requests an accommodation, or when an employer believes that an employee’s hearing disability creates a workplace safety hazard.

An employer may ask an employee about hearing issues, according to the EEOC, if they know about the employee’s condition and have a reasonable belief that it is affecting the employee’s job performance. Employers may also ask about hearing problems in connection with voluntary wellness programs and requests for reasonable accommodations or sick leave.

The EEOC offers examples of reasonable accommodations that employers may provide for hearing-impaired employees:
– A sign language interpreter;
Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services;
Assistive Listening Systems (ALSs) and Devices (ALDs);
– Other assistive technologies, such as automated captioning software or telephone equipment that is compatible with hearing aids or cochlear implants; or
– Workspace adjustments, such as a desk or workstation in a reasonably quiet area.
Employers do not have to grant every request for a reasonable accommodation. For example, if an accommodation would “eliminate an essential function of a job,” the ADA does not require it.

Safety concerns may seem like a complicated problem. The EEOC cautions employers “not to act on the basis of myths, fears, or stereotypes about hearing conditions.” It states that employers may only exclude a hearing-impaired worker for safety reasons when that person presents a “direct threat,” which the ADA defines as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others” with or without an accommodation.

If you suspect that your employer has engaged in unlawful workplace practices including disability discrimination in New Jersey or New York, you have rights under federal and state law. A knowledgeable and experienced legal advocate can help you assert those rights. Please contact the employment attorneys at the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204, 646-867-7997, or online today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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