Thursday, November 3, 2016

EEOC: Claustrophobia is a Disability

Let’s say you’re an employer with a typical office set-up of cubicles for most of your staff. Let’s say that you have a number of employees in a somewhat small space so the cubicles are not large and are close together.  And then let’s say that you have an employee that says to you that he can’t sit in the cubicle because it makes him too anxious because he has claustrophobia. What do you do now?

Claustrophobia, like some other mental health disorders, is sometimes not taken very seriously, maybe because mental health disorders often have few or no outward manifestations so it is more difficult for some to understand and the validity of the disorder is more suspect.  According to the EEOC though, claustrophobia, like many other mental health disorders, is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a recent case filed by the EEOC against Regis Corporation, on behalf of former hair stylist Nora Jacquez. She told her employer she could not work in a station “if it was in a confined space located between others,” because of her claustrophobia. The employer initially gave in to her request and placed her in an open station, but later, she was moved in between two other stylists. After her requests to move back into an open station were denied, she suffered anxiety attacks that led to her hospitalization.

Regis Corporation settled this claim prior to hearing, but the lesson for employers is clear. Treat claustrophobia like any other disability. If an employee requests a different work station or other accommodation as a result of this disorder, it is the employer’s right to request medical documentation of the disorder and its severity. Once satisfactory documentation of the disability is received, engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists. An employee who suffers claustrophobic symptoms from working in a closed cubicle may work well in an end cubicle which is more open. Removal of a panel to a cubicle may offer the same feeling of openness. The point is to work with the employee to determine what, if any, reasonable accommodation might exist.