Sam* has lived with asthma most of her life. Her asthma was well-controlled, but she learned that strong cleaning agents used in her old office could trigger intense asthma symptoms.
“There have been a couple of occasions where the carpets in the building I was located in were shampooed. We weren’t given notice, so when I showed up to work I would walk into a cloud of chemical smell that would often persist for several days.”
Sam’s story isn’t entirely unique. According to the American Lung Association, 1 of every 12 adults live with asthma, and nearly 22 percent of those adults say that their symptoms get worse from exposure to triggers at work.
If you’re part of that 22 percent — or you want to potentially avoid joining their ranks — you may want to talk to your employer about reasonable accommodations for asthma under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA is a federal law passed by Congress in 1990, and is designed to protect against discrimination on the basis of disability in most areas of public life, including workplaces, schools, and public and private places that are open to the general public. Many states and cities have similarly enacted laws aimed at protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination.
In 2009, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) became effective, which gave more guidance on disability rights under the ADA. The ADAAA states that the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of a broad coverage of individuals.
Is asthma a disability?
The answer typically depends on the severity of your asthma and how much it impacts your life. The ADA recognizes that a physical impairment that substantially limits a person’s respiratory function may qualify is a disability. You will need to work with your healthcare provider and your employer to determine if your asthma qualifies as a disability under federal or state law.
For people like Sam, asthma may only be a disability in certain circumstances.
What does ‘reasonable accommodation’ mean?
Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications provided by an employer that enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations vary depending upon the needs of the individual applicant or employee. Not all people with disabilities, or even all people with the same disability, will require the same accommodation.
Do I have to disclose my asthma at work?
In order to receive accommodations, you do have to let your human resources (HR) department know about your condition.
Because her asthma was mostly under control, Sam initially chose not to disclose her condition to her boss. When cleaning agents started making her symptoms flare, though, she explained the situation to her supervisor and supplied documentation from her healthcare provider as well.
Your healthcare provider can help you figure out what information you need to share as it relates to your request for accommodation.
Disclosure can be tough for people with chronic conditions and disabilities who fear discrimination in the workplace. Even though Sam had medical documentation, her employer at the time didn’t believe that her condition warranted a special accommodation. For safety reasons, Sam started using her sick leave when her symptoms flared, leading to more tension with her boss.
No one should be subjected to unlawful discrimination in the workplace (or elsewhere, for that matter). If you’re concerned about potential discrimination on the basis of your condition, you may want to speak to your HR representative or other high-ranking manager to discuss the issue. If you believe the issue was not resolved and you were subjected to unlawful disability discrimination, you may also consider contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA (or an equivalent state or local agency), to file a formal complaint.
What accommodations are ‘reasonable’?
Your needs will vary depending on the severity of your asthma. What is considered “reasonable” can depend on many factors including occupation, workplace, and environment.
“The law says we have to look at the facts and circumstances of each request to see if it would be an undue hardship on the employer,” says disability rights lawyer Matthew Cortland. He added that an undue hardship is considered “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.”
What does this mean?
“More expensive or difficult accommodations are more likely to be considered reasonable if the employer is large and has significant financial resources,” Cortland explained. “Smaller, less wealthy employers are less likely to be required to do more expensive or difficult accommodations.”
In short, what you might ask of a multimillion-dollar technology company might not be what a local business would be able to provide.
Potential reasonable accommodations for asthma
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides a number of potential accommodations to help with fatigue, environmental triggers, air quality, and more.
These suggestions include:
- frequent rest breaks
- air purification
- creating a smoke- and fragrance-free work environment
- allowing the employee to work from home
- adjusting air temperature and humidity
- modifying work location or equipment
- using nontoxic cleaning supplies
You can make a request during the application process, when you receive a job offer, or at any point during your employment.
While the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy notes that these requests can be made verbally, it is a good idea to do it in writing so that there is documentation.
After switching jobs, Sam says she chose to disclose her asthma to her new employer right away. Her current employers allow her to work from a different part of the building when heavy cleaners are used, and even adjust the location of meetings she’s involved in to limit her exposure.
Sam also decided to share information about her condition with co-workers outside of HR as well, and says it has been beneficial to her new environment.
“The superintendent saw me at my desk during one of the days [after a deep cleaning] gathering documents to take to my temporary work station, and she insisted that I leave the area immediately,” she said. “[She] asked me to contact her administrative assistant to bring me anything I needed from my desk to ensure I wasn’t exposed any more than needed.”
How to request a reasonable accommodation
There is no standard accommodation for a person with asthma. Your needs will vary based on the severity and frequency of your asthma and the environmental factors that may trigger it, and the types of accommodations you may be eligible for will depend on what is considered reasonable for your workplace, job function, and employer.
The following are suggested steps if you are thinking about requesting an accommodation for asthma symptoms.
- Check with your HR department to see if your employer is a covered entity that has to comply with the ADA. Covered entities include state and local governments, labor organizations, employment agencies, and companies with more than 15 employees. It is possible that you will be protected under state or local disability discrimination law even if the ADA does not apply to your employer.
- Research the ADA and talk to your healthcare provider to see if your asthma symptoms meet the eligibility requirements for a disability, and if they interfere with the essential functions of your job.
- Learn more about what qualifies as a reasonable accommodation, and what doesn’t, under the ADA.
- Talk to your employer or HR representative to learn about your employer’s policy or procedures for requesting reasonable accommodations. You will need to disclose your disability status to be eligible for workplace accommodations under the ADA.
- Create a list of reasonable accommodations you would like to request.
- Present your request to your employer.
What if my request is denied?
“Usually the first step is for the employee to ask why their request was turned down,” Cortland said.
“The reasonable accommodation request process is supposed to be a discussion, and it’s in the best interest of the employer to engage in a meaningful dialogue with employees. If the request was denied because the employer doesn’t think the employee provided enough medical documentation, the employee can ask their healthcare provider to offer additional paperwork.”
If you think your request was denied on the basis of discrimination, Cortland suggests escalating your issues to someone else within your company.
“You can try to go to higher-ups within your org chart, if you belong to a union you can file a grievance, or you can file a complaint with the EEOC or the agency in your state that enforces disability protections in the workplace.”
* Name has been changed to protect anonymity.