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Multiple Sclerosis and the Workplace

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, progressive disease that is usually diagnosed between the ages 25 to 45. The average onset occurs at 30 years of age. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers earn the most when they are between the ages of 35 and 54. The relatively early onset age and chronic nature can adversely affect a person’s economic situation. Studies have shown that a higher proportion of people with MS experience higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes as compared to the general population and other patient groups with other chronic diseases such as diabetes and arthritis. While the signs and symptoms of MS vary from person to person, they may include problems with bowel and bladder functions, pain, muscle weakness, sensory issues, migraine headaches, and emotional changes. For some people, being diagnosed with MS can create anxiety. The symptoms of MS progress over time, which often leads to physical disability. The disability caused by MS does not preclude a person from being a productive employee. Unfortunately, discrimination in the workplace remains a major hurdle that employees with MS face. Discrimination against persons with MS can also occur at the employment application process. During the application process, employers are prohibited from directly asking job applicants about medical conditions, use of medication, or medical treatments. However, an employer might know that an applicant has a disability because it is obvious or because the employment candidate has voluntarily revealed the existence of a disability.

Employees with disabilities have legal protections in the workplace. Laws such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require employers to explore reasonable accommodations to allow an employee with MS or any other disability perform the essential functions of the job, unless the accommodation would cause an “undue hardship" on the employer. An accommodation is a change or modification to the work environment which allows an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations come in many forms. For example, workplace enhancements such as ramps, accessible restrooms, and ergonomic workstations can be reasonable accommodations. Accommodations are not just physical modifications. Extended breaks, changes to an employee’s work schedule, and defined leaves of absence can also constitute reasonable accommodations.

A reasonable accommodation simply seeks to remove a disability-related barrier. Unfortunately, reasonable accommodations are sometimes viewed by employers and co-workers as “special treatment” and claimed to be unfair. To illustrate the perception of unfairness, consider disability in a classroom setting, where a student is given extra time to take a test as a reasonable accommodation for a learning disability. Other students may claim that giving the student extra time is “unfair” because extra time is something that they did not receive. This perception of unfairness is misplaced. Reasonable accommodations create a level playing field, not an unfair advantage. An employer violates the NJLAD and ADA when it refuses to make a reasonable accommodation and justifies the refusal because “all employees are required to be treated the same” or claims that “making an accommodation for one employee is unfair to other employees.”

Despite the existence of legal protections, data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) demonstrates that employees with MS commonly allege wrongful termination, the failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and discriminatory treatment as compared to employees without MS. If you have MS or other medical condition and have a disability or are perceived as having a disability and have been denied a reasonable accommodation, call Morgan Rooks PC. Our firm has represented many employees with MS who have experienced discrimination in the workplace. Please remember that National MS Awareness Day is May 30th each year.

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