TRENTON – Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) announced today that DCR has entered into a Consent Order and Decree resolving a complaint alleging that Mercer County Community College discriminated against an employee who contracted COVID-19 by firing the employee rather than extending his medical leave or allowing him to work remotely.
Under the Consent Order announced today, Mercer County Community College will be required to rehire the complainant and pay him $50,000 as compensation for his lost wages and benefits and damages for his pain and suffering. The Consent Order also requires the College to ensure that its policies and practices comply with the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), including by ensuring that its policies expressly acknowledge that the College must engage in an interactive process with an employee who requests a disability accommodation and that a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation under the law. Through an interactive process, employers and employees work together to identify and select reasonable accommodations that allow the worker to perform the essential functions of the job.
Under the Consent Order, the College must also pay $10,000 to DCR, must train its employees to comply with the LAD, and must provide regular reports to DCR about how it handles accommodation requests it receives.
“Under New Jersey law, an employee who suffers a serious illness or disability may be entitled to an accommodation that allows them to recover and heal rather than be fired because they are unable to return to work,” said Attorney General Platkin. “We will continue to pursue disability discrimination complaints on behalf of those workers who have not been treated fairly, justly, or with respect.”
“October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and our message is clear: We will hold accountable any employer who discriminates on the basis of disability, including against employees who have contracted COVID-19,” said Sundeep Iyer, Director of the Division on Civil Rights. “The LAD’s protections against disability discrimination in employment are robust, and enforcing them remains a key priority for our office.”
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country. Among other things, the law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation on the basis of an actual or perceived disability. This means that employers, housing providers, or places of public accommodation cannot deny equal treatment to any person because of a disability. It also means that an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. “Reasonable accommodations” can include, among other things, job restructuring, modified work schedules or leaves of absence, job reassignment, and making facilities usable by persons with a disability. The law also requires employers to engage in an “interactive process” with the employee to determine a suitable accommodation.
According to the Finding of Probable Cause issued by DCR in this case, the employee was hospitalized in critical condition on a ventilator in December 2021 and subsequently developed pneumonia, kidney failure, sepsis, and motor issues. Several months later, his sick time and sick bank credits were exhausted. He submitted medical documentation indicating that he needed an extension of his leave until September 2022 while he recovered. When he was unable to convince the College to extend his leave beyond July, he asked if he could work a hybrid schedule. But the College denied his request and terminated him. His replacement was hired in October, nearly three months after he offered to work a hybrid schedule and a little over a month after his doctor anticipated he would be able to return to work. DCR concluded in its Finding of Probable Cause that the college offered no evidence that granting the employee’s request for an extension of leave, or allowing him to work a hybrid schedule, would have imposed an undue hardship on its business operations.
The settlement announced today requires Mercer County Community College to take the following steps:
- Rehire the complainant into a position with the same salary he previously had;
- Pay the complainant lost wages equivalent to the amount the complainant would have made had he not been terminated as well as compensatory damages for pain, suffering, and humiliation, with the total amount paid to the complainant totaling $50,000;
- Pay $10,000 to DCR;
- Calculate future promotions and payment for the complainant based on his time in the position as if he was not terminated;
- Agree to a two-year period during which the College will report to DCR on, and DCR will monitor, all accommodation requests from employees;
- Revise the College’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy to include additional detail on the right to request a reasonable accommodation, and train staff on that policy.
The Mercer County Community College matter was handled by Division of Law Deputy Attorney General Geoffrey Gersten under the supervision of Section Chief James Michael.
To read DCR’s fact sheet on disability discrimination and the rights of people with disabilities in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation under the LAD, please visit https://www.nj.gov/lps/dcr/downloads/fact-Disability-Discrimination.pdf. People with disabilities who believe their rights under the LAD have been violated can file a complaint with DCR by visiting https://bias.njcivilrights.gov/ or calling 1-833-NJDCR4U (833-653-2748).
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights enforces the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the New Jersey Family Leave Act, and the Fair Chance in Housing Act, and works to prevent, eliminate, and remedy discrimination and bias-based harassment in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation throughout New Jersey.
To find out more information, go to www.njcivilrights.gov.