Handling an employee who suffers from seasonal affective disorder

Nov. 30, 2010
In this edition of In the Trenches, the depressing story of Acme and the scheduling function.

Art Sankraffts worked in the purchasing department at Acme’s manufacturing plant. The purchasing function was housed on the first floor of the company’s newest, light, airy and spacious office building. The fact that the parking lot was right outside the front door made things convenient for all who worked in that LEED-certified space.

During the past five years, Art consistently identified the best product for the money and exhibited enough foresight to avoid having to pay a premium for emergency and rush orders. The fact that Art was organized and detailed minded didn’t go unnoticed. The result was a regular series of rather modest pay raises. But, Art was itching for something more, something that wasn’t so boring.

After hearing the maintenance people grumbling at lunch about scheduling snafus leading to long stretches of downtime and the rumors of relatively higher pay for plant personnel, Art realized that the planning/scheduling group in Acme’s maintenance department might be a more fun and rewarding assignment. It would be nice to see if talents developed for scheduling timely purchases might be applied to a more lucrative arena that could save the company even more money.

Acme used a distributed approach for maintenance scheduling and planning. The various trades had workstations for each scheduler, all of which were interconnected and had access to a central server and maintenance database. It was possible for the maintenance planners to confer in real time to head off problems early, but this feature was underused.

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Most of the workstations were inside the bowels of the plant. The trades that didn’t have enough space for a workstation located their planners at one of the unused workstations in a bullpen area at an outside wall near the doors and windows.

But, if Art got the transfer, the only department with an opening was inside the plant. When interviewing for the job with Noel Reethanger, the maintenance manager, Art mentioned that he has seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that can be triggered when working under artificial lighting instead of natural sunlight. Art identified other SAD triggers, including noise distractions, bad ventilation and a lack of appropriate light bulbs, locking desk and a coat rack.

Noel made efforts to eliminate these triggers around Art’s workstation, but didn’t reassign Art to work in the bullpen in spite of Art’s repeated requests for a change. After he began his new job, Art experienced fatigue, anxiety, racing thoughts and experienced trouble concentrating. Soon, Art requested medical leave because of an inability to concentrate, to think of the correct word and to make decisions. Art’s doctor prescribed medication and recommended a leave of absence for the next three months.

Art sent Noel two letters during the leave of absence requesting a switch to the bullpen area. During a meeting with Noel near the end of the leave, Art’s depression worsened and turned into post-traumatic stress symptomology.

Art became unable to return to work at Acme and, instead, found a job at a local bed-and-breakfast, a situation that was much less stressful. Finally, Art initiated a case against Acme under the Americans with Disability Act, citing failure to accommodate and unlawful discharge.

How could this situation have been prevented? Should employers be more flexible with employee seating arrangements? Does this case go beyond ADA intentions

A plant engineer says:

This situation could have been prevented if everyone from legislators to individuals with disabilities would realize that not everyone can be accommodated. Noel shouldn’t have placed Art in the position knowing he couldn’t function in the plant environment. Noel shouldn’t have bothered applying knowing he couldn’t function there. But as often happens, people aren’t content in the position they hold. The job they don’t have is the one they want.

To allow Art to work in the bullpen might have required another individual with disabilities that don’t allow them to work in the factory environment to have to move. Maybe there wasn’t enough room to accommodate everyone in the bullpen. The sad thing is that Art and Noel knew the facts and charged ahead into the dangerous waters of placing someone in position that required them to work in an environment where they couldn’t function. It’s likely that if Noel didn’t give Art the job, he would have sued Acme anyway alleging he was denied a position he was qualified to fill.

It sounds like when any disabled Acme employee requests a job transfer, the company should consult an attorney instead of HR. It can be difficult for people in Noel’s position (maintenance manager) to understand the laws that our legislators enact. Noel is charged with providing capacity for Acme by keeping its assets in good working order, not to know the fine points of law that deal with people’s disabilities.

The question of seating arrangements is a tricky one. Everyone wants the corner office by the window with a short walk to the parking lot. Everyone knows they deserve the best office because their presence provides the most value to the company. At some point we all need to understand that there’s only so much a company can do to accommodate everyone’s requests. Whether a company accommodates everyone’s request properly will be left up to the courts to decide.

Jeffrey L. Strasser
Bacova Guild
(540) 863-2656
[email protected]

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An academician says:

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and thus the employer must make some “reasonable accommodations” for those afflicted by this medical problem. There’s often an issue as to what is “reasonable,” both from an employer’s perspective and from the legal perspective.

I’m not sure whether Acme’s accommodations for Art were “reasonable,” however, I would have suggested a slightly different approach to the problem. Art had a known medical condition that could affect his performance and Acme was aware of the problem. Given that Art wanted to transfer, and given that Acme approved the transfer (they could have said “no”), Acme might have entered in an agreement with Art that he try the new job with accommodations for 30 days.

At that point, he and Acme would decide whether the job is a fit for Art. If the job is a fit, Art stays. But if it doesn’t work out, Art can go back to his old job. Thus, both Art and Acme are given some protection. Art is a valuable Acme employee and the situation should be structured such that Art remains a valuable employee.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

Perhaps some logical explanation exists for Acme's failure to move Art to the bullpen area but certainly none rears its head in the set of facts presented here.

Art is a disabled person, protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, because he has an impairment, seasonal affective disorder, that substantially limits at least one major life activity, the ability to work. Art can perform the essential functions of the planning and scheduling job with accommodation, such as natural light, minimal noise distractions and ventilation. All of this establishes an obligation on the part of Acme to reasonably accommodate Art unless to do so would be an undue hardship.

So what's the problem? The problem remains that Acme turned a deaf ear to Art's requests for accommodation for no ostensible reason. Given that only those trades that didn’t have enough room for a planner to be located in the bowels of the plant banished them to the bullpen, surely Acme could have moved Art to the plant's perimeter, even if it had to switch his work location with that of another worker.

Because Acme apparently can provide no argument that accommodating Art by moving him to a location with natural light would be an undue hardship, it is going to have great difficulty in defending Art's failure to accommodate claim.

Art's discharge claim, however, is a horse of a different color. For starters, what discharge? Art found another job because he couldn’t work at Acme. In other words, Art quit.

Many accommodation requests pose both practical and legal issues for an employer. How much money is an employer obligated to spend to widen a doorway or install an elevator to accommodate one employee in a wheel chair? But issues like the one involved here — changing an employee's seat assignment or providing an employee with rest breaks on a different schedule — are cost free non-disruptive forms of accommodation that an employer should not hesitate to institute.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]