An individual suffering from Environmental Illness or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (EI/MCS) can have implications for their employer. As such, it is important for employers to understand EI/MCS from a human resources perspective.
For an explanation of EI/MCS, please see our “What is Environmental Intolerance or Environmental Illness” page.
Is EI/MCS a Covered Disability Under the ADA?
Some employees suffering from EI/MCS may be considered disabled under the ADA and others may not. The key question is whether the specific individuals’ EI/MCS substantially limits one or more of their major life activities. This is determined on a case-by-case basis and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recognizes the following as major life activities: performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working
The employer should individually assess the employee’s limitations as compared to most people in the general population to determine whether he or she is substantially limited by EI/MCS. Usually this assessment does not require any scientific or medical knowledge.
Accommodating an Employee When Asked for an Accommodation for EI/MCS
Since EI/MCS may not be an obvious disability to an onlooker, the employer may only know about this issue when the employee brings this to the employer’s attention. Once an employee reveals he or she may need a workplace accommodation, the employer must engage the employee in the interactive process. During this process the employer should meet with the employee and any of the following may be discussed:
- What limitations is the employee experiencing
- What type of irritants or triggers are known to cause a reaction
- What is the reaction the employee experiences
- How is the employee’s ability to do his or her job affected
The employer should ask during this meeting what accommodations, if any, are available to reduce or eliminate these problems so the employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job.
The employer may ask the employee to provide reasonable documentation, such as from a health care professional, to support the employees need for reasonable accommodation. The employer should never ask for a specific diagnoses, only information related to EI/MCS that is needed to verify the disability and help in determining an accommodation that is reasonable and meets the employee’s needs. Example documentation may include: description of trigger(s) that create a reaction; description of the nature, severity, and duration of the reaction when triggered; description of activities the impairment limits; whether the impairment is permanent or temporary; and if mitigating measures can be taken to reduce the limitation.
Requirements of Employers
The employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations but does not need to grant the specific accommodations requested by the disabled employee. If the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the business, the employer may deny the requested accommodation and suggest another potential alternative. The undue hardship requirement would be met if the requested accommodation needs significant financial commitment, fundamentally alters the nature or operation of the business, or is unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive. Determining whether an accommodation would impose undue hardship on an employer needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis. If a request for a specific accommodation is denied because it would impose undue hardship, the employer should be able to provide alternative accommodations for the employee to consider.
Reasonable Accommodations for Employees Suffering from EI/MCS
The following may be reasonable accommodations for an employee with EI/MCS:
- Provide an office or work space with windows
- Move the employee’s work space to an area not exposed to fragrance and/or chemicals
- Improve ventilation and/or provide air purifiers at employee’s work space
- Provide the employee with a mask or respirator
- Provide education to employees about fragrance sensitivities
- Provide advanced notification of any construction work such as remodeling, painting, carpet cleaning, floor waxing, etc.
- Allow for alternative work arrangements such as the use of another office or work from home
- Implementing voluntary fragrance-free initiatives and/or designating specific work spaces as fragrance-free areas
Courts have generally not required employers to provide a mandatory fragrance-free work environment. Employers facing employee requests for accommodation should always seek advice of experienced employment attorneys.