Thursday, December 4, 2014

What Makes Scents in the Workplace

What’s the most bothersome smell in the workplace? Maybe it is the perfume that the person next to you seems to douse themselves in every day. Maybe it’s a combination of the scents that people wear that irritates some employees. Or maybe most people would agree that it’s the scent of that popcorn that someone left in the microwave too long and it started to burn that makes employees want to run from the office gasping for fresh air.

While many workers may be bothered by scents in the workplace, the question for employers is what is a reasonable accommodation for an employee who is actually allergic to certain scents. It’s a tricky question because often an employee cannot distinguish the scent that is causing the physical reaction. Moreover, there is no legal duty (although it may be a morale issue) to accommodate an employee who is simply irritated by perfumes or colognes, as opposed to having a genuine allergy or sensitivity which may compromise their health.

The good news is that the EEOC has long held that a request for a scent free workplace is not a reasonable accommodation. In the 2000 case before the EEOC of Roberts v. Slater, the agency held that a fragrance free workplace was not reasonable and enforcing such would be impractical.  On the other hand,  the ADA may require an employer to rid the workplace of a particular scent as a reasonable accommodation. This brings us back to the popcorn issue. In Habluetzel v. Potter the EEOC found that it was reasonable to prohibit employees from making popcorn in the workplace because an employee had a sever allergy to corn products.

What should an employer do, though, if an employee claims, with his or her doctor’s support, that he or she is suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity but the product that triggers the reaction has not been identified?  While employers are not expected to ban all fragrances in the workplace, they can try what the U.S. Postal Service did when faced with this problem. In that case, the supervisor in the facility asked other employees to voluntarily avoid wearing strong fragrances and offered the employee leave time for days when he suffered a reaction from workplace scents. The EEOC found that this was a reasonable and effective accommodation.

We still don’t know what to do when someone burns the popcorn.