Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) have announced that a complaint alleging discrimination against an employee who contracted COVID-19 has been resolved through a Consent Order and Decree with Mercer County Community College. The complaint stated that the employee was fired instead of being given an extension of medical leave or the opportunity to work remotely.
As part of the Consent Order, the College is required to rehire the complainant and provide compensation of $50,000 for lost wages, benefits, and damages related to pain and suffering. The College must also ensure that its policies align with the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which includes engaging in an interactive process with employees who request disability accommodations and recognizing that a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation. Employers and employees collaborate in this interactive process to identify appropriate accommodations that allow the employee to perform essential job functions.
In addition, the Consent Order mandates that the College pay $10,000 to DCR, train its employees on LAD compliance, and submit regular reports to DCR regarding how accommodation requests are handled.
Attorney General Platkin emphasizes that New Jersey law protects employees with serious illnesses or disabilities, allowing them to recover and heal instead of being terminated due to their inability to return to work. He asserts that disability discrimination complaints will be pursued on behalf of workers who have been treated unfairly.
Sundeep Iyer, Director of the Division on Civil Rights, highlights the importance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month and affirms that any employer discriminating against individuals with disabilities, including those who have contracted COVID-19, will be held accountable. The LAD provides robust protections against disability discrimination in employment, and enforcing these protections is a priority.
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is known as one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country. It prohibits discrimination based on disability in various areas, such as employment, housing, and public accommodations. Employers, housing providers, and places of public accommodation are prohibited from denying equal treatment to individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, employers must provide reasonable accommodations, unless it would create an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations include job restructuring, modified work schedules, leaves of absence, job reassignment, and making facilities accessible to individuals with disabilities. The law also requires employers to engage in an interactive process to determine suitable accommodations.
According to the Finding of Probable Cause issued by DCR in this case, the employee was in critical condition and on a ventilator in December 2021. He experienced various complications, such as pneumonia, kidney failure, sepsis, and motor issues. After exhausting his sick time and sick bank credits, he provided medical documentation indicating the need for an extended leave until September 2022 to recover. Despite requesting an extension of leave and proposing a hybrid work schedule, the College denied these requests and terminated him. The College’s replacement hiring occurred almost three months after the employee offered to work a hybrid schedule and a little over a month after his doctor anticipated his return to work. DCR’s Finding of Probable Cause concluded that the College failed to provide evidence that granting the employee’s requests would have imposed an undue hardship on its operations.
The settlement requires Mercer County Community College to rehire the complainant with the same salary, compensate him with $50,000 for lost wages and damages, pay $10,000 to DCR, calculate future promotions and payment based on the complainant’s time in the position as if he had not been terminated, report to DCR on accommodation requests for two years, and revise its anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy to include details on the right to request a reasonable accommodation and train staff accordingly.
The handling of the Mercer County Community College matter was overseen by Deputy Attorney General Geoffrey Gersten, with Section Chief James Michael providing supervision.