NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Protecting Psychiatric Cases In The Workplace

April 30, 1997

On April 29, 1997 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued sweeping new rules to protect mentally ill workers at the expense of employers' rights to hire and fire. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, firms cannot "discriminate" against employees with serious mental illnesses. They cannot ask job applicants if they have a history of mental illnesses, must give such persons extra time off from work, alter schedules or assignments and make physical changes in the workplace as a "reasonable accommodation."

  • Such disabilities include major depression, manic depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and personality disorders.
  • Nearly 13 percent of all complaints filed with the EEOC under the disabilities act in the past four years -- 9,216 out of 72,687 -- alleged discrimination resulting from emotional or psychiatric impairments.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health claims one in every ten Americans experiences some disability from some diagnosable mental illness in the course of a year.
  • The new rules say employers should be alert to the possibility that traits normally regarded as undesirable -- chronic lateness, poor judgment, hostility to co-workers or supervisors -- "may be linked to mental impairments."

An employer could be forced to provide "room dividers, partitions or other soundproofing or visual barriers between work spaces." Employers could be required to provide temporary job coaches and be prepared to rework schedules to accommodate employees who are rendered groggy or non-alert due to medications.

Initially, it appeared that large corporations were prepared to go along with the new rules. Small companies, however, are expected to be hardest hit -- often not having the expertise, the funds or flexibility in personnel scheduling demanded by the EEOC.

Questions of employer liability also remain, in the event that a deranged employee kills or harms fellow workers or customers.

Source: Robert Pear, "Employers Told to Accommodate the Mentally Ill," New York Times, April 30, 1997.


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