From the desk of Matthew McCord, M.S., CRC, Senior Consultant – Motor Team
Food is an integral part of our lives, so it is important to consider the impact of food in the workplace. Whether it is company sponsored cook-outs, celebrations for holidays, weddings, or just friendly gatherings, food-related disabilities should be kept in mind when planning for these events.
Under section 7.3 of the ADA Technical Assistance Manual, the EEOC discusses the ADA’s prohibitions on discrimination in various employment practices including, “Activities sponsored by a covered entity including social and recreational programs.” Additionally, the document further defines this by stating, “An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation that will enable an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity in every aspect of employment, unless a particular accommodation would impose an undue hardship.” With these two excerpts in mind, we can now apply them to three examples that an employer may encounter.
While planning for a company sponsored cook-out event, it comes to your attention that you have an employee with a severe allergy to shellfish. The employee states that exposure can cause breathing distress. This reaction can be triggered not only by consuming the shellfish, but also by breathing in the air nearby the food as it is cooking. You see that it was decided to include shrimp as a menu option for this event. As shrimp is a type of shellfish, this would limit the employee’s ability to participate in the recreational event. To enable the employee to participate, accommodation options that would not pose an undue hardship on the company should be considered.
Deciding that the shrimp should be removed from the menu and replaced with another option would be effective at meeting this individual’s needs. This allows the individual with the disability to attend the cook-out without worry. It is decided to replace the shrimp option with grilled bratwurst sausages, which results in a successful accommodation.
You are made aware of the fact that a few of your employees have celiac disease. It was also decided recently that the company will be holding a pizza party to celebrate a recent company success. Although the celiac disease does not limit the employees from being physically present at the gathering, the condition would limit them in enjoying the provided food. The food is being provided for the employees to enjoy and their disabilities make it so they cannot enjoy this benefit of employment. Accommodation options should be reviewed to allow these employees to enjoy this aspect of employment.
As the pizza is not going to be a problem for the employees so long as they do not eat it, the employer here is welcome to keep it on the menu. It is decided that they will keep the pizza on the menu while also providing gluten-free options for the individuals with disabilities to enjoy. Menu options of barbequed chicken and mashed potatoes are added. These options allow the individuals to enjoy the employer-provided food and result in a successful accommodation.
A group of co-workers have invited several employees to a local restaurant to celebrate a bridal shower. However, one of the invited individuals is allergic to nuts, and the selected establishment allows for nuts to be cracked and eaten without any protections in place. This restaurant choice thus limits this individual from attending the event. However, the employer is not covering the cost of this event. All attendees are required to pay for their own meals. Even though several employees are at this event, and the event was planned on the job, the employer is not sponsoring this event and thus not required to provide an accommodation. However, the individual can still discuss his needs with those planning the event and see if they would be willing to change the restaurant choice.
It is critical to keep individuals with disabilities in mind when planning for work-related social events. Not only can disabilities limit someone from physically being present at such gatherings, but they can also limit someone from participating in activities at these events. Eating employer-provided food is certainly an important activity at a cook-out and therefore accommodations may need to be reviewed to ensure equal opportunity in those activities as well. If you would like some additional resources to explore that provide ideas on accommodation options for food-related allergies, go to JAN's A to Z: Food Allergy.