Equal Treatment Can Be Discrimination at Workplace

Although this sounds counter-intuitive, equal treatment of all employees can be discriminatory and in violation of disability and other laws. The seminal case on this issues is US Airways, Inc. v Barnett (2002), decided by the US Supreme Court. In that case, the high court considered whether leave and other policies equally applied to all employees, regardless of their disabilities and limitations can still be discriminatory. The answer is yes. The Court said that an employer who treats all employees equally might still be in violation of the law, since preferences sometimes prove necessary to achieve the basic equal opportunity goal envisioned by law. The law requires preferences in the form of reasonable accommodations that are needed for those with disabilities to obtain the same workplace opportunities that those without disabilities automatically enjoy.

The Court further noted that by definition any special “accommodation” requires the employer to treat an employee with a disability differently, i.e. preferentially. Otherwise, neutral office assignment rules would automatically prevent the accommodation of an employee whose disability-imposed limitations require him to work on the ground floor. Neutral “break-from-work” rules would automatically prevent the accommodation of an individual who needs additional breaks from work, perhaps to permit medical visits. Likewise, neutral furniture budget rules would automatically prevent the accommodation of an individual who needs a different kind of chair or desk.