The following article recently appeared on HRSpotlight.com:

In King v. City of Madison, King was employed as a bus driver for the city of Madison. Because of several health factors including a high-risk pregnancy, diabetes and migraine headaches, King became unable to continue in her position. She was granted leave without pay on February 23, 2003, and eventually was transferred to layoff status for 18 months. After being on leave for approximately 14 months, King's doctor cleared her to return to work; however, the doctor barred her from driving a bus. King then asked to be placed into the "operations tech II position."   

King's job was governed by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the city and the Teamsters Local 695. Based on King's seniority and classification range under the CBA, the only position that she had a right to demand within her bargaining unit was that of bus driver. However, King's medical condition prevented her from taking this position. The CBA also provided King with the right to compete for vacant city positions in other bargaining units. While King applied for five vacant clerical positions in other bargaining units, she was not selected because she was not the most qualified applicant.  

After King was on leave for two years, the city terminated her, as it had a right to do under the CBA. King then filed suit claiming that the city had unlawfully failed to accommodate her disability.  

The 7th Circuit assumed without deciding that King was disabled and held that even if King was disabled, the city fulfilled its obligation to reasonably accommodate her. The court noted that King was correct in arguing that reassignment to a vacant position can constitute a reasonable accommodation but held that such rule does not require an employer to reassign a disabled employee against the provisions of a CBA. Because the city applied its disability layoff policies embodied in the CBA in a neutral, nondiscriminatory manner, the court held that the city fulfilled its obligation to accommodate King.  

Recommendations to Employers when a Bargaining Unit Employee Asks for an Accommodation

  1. At least consider whether the employee is disabled and is entitled to a reasonable accommodation.
  2. Always consider the potential impact and restrictions in the CBA when dealing with requests for accommodation.
  3. Keep in mind that the CBA may not always be controlling. While King v. Madison held that an employer need not accommodate an employee in a manner that contravenes a CBA, other courts have limited their holdings to situations in which an accommodation contravenes a bona fide seniority provision. Under this line of cases, the possibility is left open that an accommodation is required if it contravenes other provisions of a CBA. See Willis v. Pacific Maritime Association, 244 F.3d 675, 682 (9th Cir. 2001).
  4. Finally, EEOC guidelines suggest that employers discuss with the union what accommodations may be taken even if they appear to violate the CBA.