New Jersey Attorney General Settles Disability Discrimination Claim Related to COVID-19

Workers who suffer injuries or illnesses may have protection against losing their jobs if they are temporarily unable to work. New Jersey employment laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The definition of this term under state law includes many temporary conditions that can arise from injury or illness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people nationwide were unable to work at any given moment because of COVID infections. Emergency state and federal laws provided some forms of paid sick leave for people dealing with COVID. It largely fell to antidiscrimination laws to address disparate treatment because of COVID infections. The New Jersey Attorney General (AG) recently announced that his office had settled a disability discrimination claim against a community college district that allegedly fired an employee suffering from COVID rather than granting him accommodations to allow him to continue working. The settlement requires the employer to re-hire the employee and pay him damages.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) provides a broad definition of “disability.” A person must have a condition that either “prevents the typical exercise of any bodily or mental functions” or “is demonstrable…by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” COVID-19 meets this definition of “disability” since, among other effects, it can severely impact the respiratory system, leaving a person with limited ability to exert themselves.

Employers may not discriminate against employees or job seekers based on disability, as defined by the NJLAD. This means that an employer may not fire or refuse to hire someone based primarily on a disability. It also means that employers must provide reasonable accommodations that would allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. “Reasonable” means that the requested accommodation may not be too much of a burden on the employer or their business.

The employee in the AG case mentioned above worked for a New Jersey community college. Most community colleges in the state are public institutions governed at the county level. According to the AG’s findings, the employee was hospitalized with COVID in December 2021. He required a ventilator, and eventually “developed pneumonia, kidney failure, sepsis, and motor issues.”

His condition improved, but he believed that he would not be able to return to work at full capacity when his sick leave ran out in July 2022. He requested an extension until September. When the college reportedly refused, he asked if he could work a hybrid schedule that included remote work beginning in July. The college also refused this request and terminated him.

The employee filed a complaint with the AG. After an investigation, the AG found that the employer had violated the employee’s rights under the NJLAD. It noted that the employer did not hire a replacement until October, a month after the employee could have returned to work. It found that the employee had not established that the requested accommodations would have posed an undue burden.

The AG ordered the employer to reinstate the employee to his prior position and salary, and to pay him $50,000 in damages. It also assessed a civil fine of $10,000.

Employers might owe damages to employees or job applicants if they violate their rights under federal or state law. If you have suffered disability discrimination or other harm because of an employer’s unlawful actions, a knowledgeable and skilled employment attorney can help you recover damages. The Resnick Law Group represents employees and job applicants in New Jersey and New York in a wide range of employment claims. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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