Discrimination on the basis of mental or physical disability in the workplace is prohibited by federal and New Jersey law. The laws cover both mental and physical discrimination.
Federal Law on Disability Discrimination
The federal law against mental or physical disability discrimination —specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Some situations in which disability discrimination occurs, as described by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), are when an employee or applicant is treated less favorably:
- Due to his or her disability or history of disability
- Because he or she “is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if [he or] she does not have such an impairment).
- Due to his or her relationship with a person who has a disability
There are certain conditions, described by the EEOC, that must be met under federal law for a person to qualify as having a disability:
- A person may be disabled if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning).
- A person may be disabled if he or she has a history of a disability (such as cancer that is in remission).
- A person may be disabled if he [or she] is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if he does not have such an impairment).
Essentially, as an employee you should be able to exist in a normal work environment and be fairly considered for jobs based on your qualifications, and not on your disability. Once in a work environment, your employer might be required by federal law to make reasonable accommodations, “unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer,” the EEOC states, adding that the resulting “undue hardship” from making the accommodation must “be too difficult or too expensive to provide, in light of the employer’s size, financial resources, and the needs of the business.” This does not mean that it cannot cost any sort of money or time—just that it cannot be overly burdensome.
New Jersey Laws on Disability Discrimination
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits disability discrimination quite broadly—in the application and hiring process, and while in consideration for jobs, apprenticeships and traineeships. Like in federal law, the NJ LAD prohibits employers from taking adverse action against you based on your disability and not on your qualifications.
State law defines disability as the following:
- Any physical disability, infirmity, malformation, or disfigurement caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness
- Any mental, psychological or developmental disability that results from conditions that prevent the normal exercise of any bodily or mental function or which can be shown to exist through accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic tests
You don’t have to have a disability to be the victim of disability discrimination under state law. It is illegal for someone to discriminate against you in the workplace because they think you currently have or previously had a disability. Moreover, you can’t be discriminated against for “any disability you might get in the future,” the Attorney General’s Office says.
State law has the same requirements and standard as federal law for employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who are disabled.
The AG Office states one example of a way that an employer can discriminate against someone with a disability: when downsizing a business, “an employer must not consider your disability or your need for workplace accommodations when deciding which employees will be laid off.”
Federal and state law both prohibit harassment based on disability. As the NJ Attorney General’s Office states, it is illegal for your employer to harass you or permit others to do so because of your disability. “Such bias-based harassment is unlawful during the application/hiring process, during your employment, or when you leave your job,” the AG’s office states. Federal law prohibits harassment based on one’s disability, as well. While the NJ law prohibits your employer to permit harassment by others, federal law prohibits anyone in the workplace to harass you on the basis of your disability: this can be a coworker, supervisor, or even a customer.
Pursuing a Claim
Since both state and federal law prohibit disability-based harassment, you can file a claim with either the Division of Civil Rights in NJ or the EEOC, depending on your specific circumstances. You can also file a lawsuit in the Superior Court of NJ. Speaking with a discrimination attorney will determine the right path for you.