Q. I work for a company that made an accommodation for me and my wheelchair, which allows me to work on the first floor of our two-story building. Others in my department work upstairs, but our office building lacks an elevator. I now have a larger problem. Another employee on this floor wears a perfume or cologne that makes it difficult for me to breathe, gives me migraines, causes my heart to beat faster, makes me nauseous, my legs weak and causes them to spasm. It is impossible to focus on my work when that happens.
When I confronted her about it, she laughed at me and said it was “a personal problem.” I brought up the issue with my manager, who had a talk with her, but it didn’t do much good. She wore the scent again the next day, knowing the impact it was having on me. In fact, I think she began wearing an even larger amount of the perfume after that.
This situation makes me nervous — I have heard that Ohio has a “no-fault” employment law that would allow an employee to be dismissed without being given an explanation. If that is true, I am afraid the company might just let me go instead of dealing with the problem I brought to their attention. Do I have any protection from such an action? I would appreciate some advice.
— Nervous, and Sick, at Work
A. First you should identify the cause of your physical problems and the extent of the potential harm. The next time symptoms occur, visit your physician or an allergist to document the cause and provide that information to your company. Your employer can then focus on whatever might make you ill or unable to work. While you may believe your co-worker is the root of your problems, environmental illnesses or chemical sensitivity can also be related to commonly used scented additives. Tests for allergic reactions can help you avoid such products. Sometimes the physical reaction to them can be debilitating or even life-threatening.
Environmental illnesses or allergic reactions can also be caused by products used in construction, or in furnishings, like carpets. For instance, formaldehyde, which for many years was used as a component of insulation. Those products are hidden from view but can have the same impact as other, more visible, causal factors.
In order to make the workplace safe for all, many companies and government agencies have, as a reasonable accommodation, established scent-free workplace policies. If that doesn’t improve your situation, your employer could relocate you (or any co-worker who refuses or is unable to comply with the policy) to an area that won’t put your health at risk. Options may include a private office, telecommuting or placing air purifiers or fans in your existing work space. Other potential solutions can be found online at the Job Accommodation Network.
Since the conversation with your manager did not resolve the situation, request a meeting with your human resources officer. That person will have responsibility for determining what accommodation may be necessary, and will also be responsible in case the company’s attempt at resolution is unsatisfactory and results in a formal complaint. Depending on whether you are working for a private or government employer, the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title I or Title II) may be applicable to your situation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar state agency enforces the ADA and also any state civil rights laws relative to employment. Procedures for making complaints can be found online, and you can receive advice or representation regarding a complaint from your state’s Disability Rights organization.
The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 covers employment and situations like you are experiencing. Changes in the law that took effect Jan. 1, 2009, clarified what comprises a disability and expanded coverage of the law to include more conditions. Since you have a pre-existing mobility disability that causes you to need a wheelchair, your company provided the necessary accommodations to allow you to work there. Problems you face related to environmental causes (your co-worker’s fragrance) would require other courses of action on the part of an employer.
By establishing that your physical health makes you unable to work under certain circumstances and the reasons for that, then documenting that with your employer, you will receive the protections that the ADA and state civil rights laws grant. Retribution would be illegal and, unless you goof up otherwise at work, you would be protected from being penalized or fired due to your disability. That should get you started, and good luck.
• Department of Justice ADA homepage, www.ada.gov
• Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, www.EEOC.gov
• Job Accommodation Network, askjan.org/soar
• National Disability Rights Network, www.ndrn.org