• JC Serrano

Accommodating Disabled Employees: According to California Employment Law

Updated: Jun 5

Find A Labor Lawyer in California for Disability Accommodation Claims

Nobody asks to be born with a disability. However, for many people, disabilities are an unavoidable part of life. Disabilities may also have a negative impact on a person's ability to work. It's critical to understand which acts constitute unconstitutional disability discrimination in these situations. With the help of a Labor Lawyer, you might be able to get damages you are entitled to.

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Discrimination against people with disabilities is when they are treated unfairly because of their physical or mental limitations. It is definitely illegal for employers with five or more employees to discriminate on the basis of an employee's physical impairment, mental disability, medical condition, or genetic condition under California law.

The employee must be (and should be) able to perform the job's basic functions in order to be eligible for insurance. If an employee should require a reasonable accommodation to perform their job, the employer is required by law to offer one because doing so would be extremely difficult and costly.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a federal law that aims to provide "simple, solid, consistent, and enforceable requirements addressing discrimination against persons with disabilities."

Employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against disabled employees who can perform the basic functions of their employment, even though they require fair accommodations.

  • The ADA also establishes guidelines for determining whether an employee is injured and what types of accommodations are appropriate.

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission partially applies the ADA in the United States (known as the EEOC). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a government agency in charge of enforcing a number of federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) promulgates ADA-related rules and advises on employee grievances. In certain cases, the EEOC will file a civil lawsuit on behalf of a disabled person against an employer. Your Employment Law Attorney will know the more in-depth details.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)

The State of California's version of the ADA is the Equal Employment and Housing Act of 1959 (known as FEHA Pronunciation of "FEHA"). Its aim is to provide workers with remedies and to eradicate discriminatory practices.

  • Employers with five or more workers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with physical or mental disabilities, medical conditions, or genetic details under the FEHA.

  • The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is in charge of enforcing the FEHA. By having a process for filing grievances, the DFEH serves as a first step for many aggrieved workers.

The DFEH, like its federal counterpart, has enacted several regulations. They aim to "ensure discrimination-free access to job opportunities despite any individual's real or perceived impairment or medical condition," among other things. ⁠

Employers and workers may use the DFEH's regulations to define the provisions of the FEHA.

The Main Differences Between the ADA and the FEHA

The FEHA was enacted before the ADA, but the California legislature greatly amended it in 1992. Those changes were modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act because the two acts are identical. The key difference is that disabled workers are generally given more protection under the FEHA.

The ADA does not exclude states or local governments from enacting legislation that offers equivalent or greater protections to employees. This ensures that employers in California are expected to follow regulations that set the highest expectations.

Here are some key distinctions between the FEHA and the ADA:

The FEHA's definition of "disability" is more expansive than the ADA's. In cases where the FEHA's concept of "disability" is not broader than the ADA's, the FEHA incorporates the definition that would provide the employee with the broadest protections.

As a result, the FEHA's coverage is always at least equal to the ADA's. The ADA restricts the amount of damages workers can recover in a civil case, while the FEHA has no such restrictions.

  • Employers with more than 15 employed workers are covered by the ADA, while the FEHA covers employers with five or more employees.

  • Under the FEHA, an employer's duty to provide fair accommodations for a disabled person is greater than under the ADA.

  • Employees who want to make a lawsuit against their employer should be aware of these distinctions. Since the FEHA gives workers more rights than the ADA, it is always preferable for employees to seek relief under the FEHA rather than the ADA.

Which Employers Could Be Held Liable?

An employer can be held responsible for discrimination or discriminatory behavior under California law if they fall into one of the following categories:

  • Employers with a staff of five or more

  • Despite the fact that California law aims to abolish disability discrimination in the workplace, it exempts very small businesses.

  • ⁠Individuals who work in companies with less than five employees will have no recourse if they are subjected to discrimination practices. ⁠ As a result, the employer must be a "individual regularly employing five or more people" to be held legally liable for discriminatory practices. ⁠

  • Agents

  • An individual who works on behalf of an employer is known as an agent. For this form of relationship to occur, the employer must agree to have the agent work on its behalf.

  • An employer's agent is handled the same as the real employer under California and federal law. This ensures that an employee will sue both the employer and the employer's agent for discriminatory actions committed by the agent.

  • Supervisory employees, for example, are not legally "agents" for these purposes.

  • Supervisors

  • Employers are generally liable for the discriminatory conduct of their bosses, administrators, or agents. Similarly, when employers threaten disabled workers, the employer can be held liable.

  • On the other hand, the inappropriate conduct must have occurred while the violating boss, manager, or agent was employed.

  • Importantly, since they are the actual boss, individual superiors or managers are not individually responsible for acts of discrimination or retaliation. They may, however, be held directly responsible for harassment-related acts.

  • Colleagues

  • Coworkers, in general, do not have the authority to take disciplinary action against employees. They'd be called managers if they weren't. As a result, allegations of discrimination against colleagues are typically minimal.

  • A coworker who harasses a disabled employee may be held personally accountable. In the same way, an employer can be held liable if:

  • The employer or any subordinates were aware (or should have been aware) of the bullying behavior of a coworker, and the employer failed to take prompt and effective action to address the harassment.

  • This is basically a liability principle based on "negligence." An employer will be held accountable if it negligently allows a disabled person to be insulted by coworkers.

Which Employees Are Protected?

  • Those who work for you

  • Employers who discriminate against "any person" in the workplace are breaking the law in California. This applies to all existing staff and career applicants.

  • Any person who is under the supervision and control of an employer is considered an employee for these purposes. To be eligible, the employee must have a compensated employment contract with the company. This may be in the form of an implicit contract, an apprenticeship, or some other type of work arrangement.

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  • Those looking for work

  • California's anti-discrimination laws also cover employees and job applicants. As a result, work candidates frequently have the right to be free of discrimination based on their disability.

  • It is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire or train a worker because of their disability unless the same form of discrimination is allowed against employees.

  • Contractors who work for themselves

  • Independent contractors do not have the same rights as employers when it comes to disability discrimination. They do, however, have the right to be free of discrimination by their employer because of their disability.

  • An independent contractor is described as anyone who provides services for a set price and a set outcome. Independent contractors usually work without oversight and have complete control of how they achieve their goals.

  • Exceptions to the rule

  • Employees who are part of the employer's immediate family are not covered. Volunteers and individuals who are not paying in any other way should not count as workers.

  • A few other types of workers are not covered, such as some nonprofit employees, but these are rare exceptions.

When is an Impairment Considered a Qualified "Disability"?

Discrimination against workers because of their disabilities is illegal in California. However, not all physical or psychological issues are considered legal "disabilities." An employee must suffer from one of the following conditions in order to be protected by California law:

  • A medical disorder

  • A physical impairment

  • A mental disability

Employees are shielded from prejudice based on their genetic information in a similar way. However, the form of discrimination is more likely to fall into one of the categories mentioned above.


In California, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a pregnant employee. Whether or not the employee is impaired as a result of the pregnancy, pregnancy discrimination by an eligible employer is often prohibited.

In some cases, pregnant women may be protected from discrimination based on both their pregnancy and a pregnancy-related disability. If a pregnant woman is impaired as a result of her pregnancy, she is entitled to a suitable accommodation unless it would place an unreasonable burden on the employer.

  • Since an employer might be forced to offer extended family leave, reasonable allowances are necessary for female workers. A suitable accommodation may also be required to change the employee's working conditions and enable him or her to work in comfort.

  • Employees must be legally "disabled" by their pregnancy in order to be eligible for these forms of accommodations. In other words, the employee themselves will have to prove that their pregnancy has prevented them from engaging in a major life operation.


Obesity is seldom considered a physical impairment. However, if it is exacerbated by anything physical and involuntary, it may become a physical disability.

When an employee's weight problem is the product of a physiological illness or disease affecting a body system, they are protected from disability discrimination. Furthermore, the employee's weight would restrict his or her ability to engage in major life activities.

Disabilities That Aren't Protected

If an employee's illness is mild and temporary, it is not considered an eligible disability. On a case-by-case basis, mild conditions are decided. They contain conditions with short-term or no long-term consequences. Colds, measles, minor cuts or abrasions, sprains, muscle aches, soreness, bruises, non-migraine headaches, and minor and non-chronic gastrointestinal disorders are only a few examples.

Additionally, despite the fact that all of these behaviors are arguably psychiatric illnesses, California law expressly forbids them: compulsive gambling, Kleptomania, Pyromania, Substance abuse disorders arising from current illegal drug use, and Certain sexual conduct disorders such as pedophilia, exhibitionism, and voyeurism.

Transgender people, for example, do not have a sexual behavior disorder. The freedom to pose or dress in a manner that is compatible with the employee's gender identity or gender expression is protected by California law.

If you're still unsure whether or not your illness counts as a disability, you can speak with an Employment Law Attorney.

Misjudging Someone's Disability