Food is an important part of our work culture. We celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions by coming together with our colleagues for a potluck meal and dessert. We meet customers at restaurants to network and seal the deal. We attend conferences and eat the lunch that is included in the registration fee. All of these things can affect the environment in which we work if we are one of the 15 million Americans who have food allergies.i
A food allergy is a medical condition in which exposure to a food triggers a harmful immune response. An immune response occurs when the immune system views normally harmless proteins in the food as intruders and attacks. These proteins are called allergens. The eight major food allergens – milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish – result in most of the serious food allergy reactions in the United States. In severe cases, allergic reactions can cause anaphylactic shock, difficulty swallowing or breathing, asthma, and death.ii
In 2012, in a settlement agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the U.S. Department of Justice provided guidance on food allergies as a disability. Although this case was not specific to employment, the ideas can be applied in the workplace. In thinking about food allergies as a disability, we must remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) looks at disability on a case by case basis. A condition that has a severe impact on one person may only cause mild discomfort for another.
The ADA defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as eating. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, like functions of the gastrointestinal system. People who have more significant or severe responses to certain foods have a disability as defined by ADA.iii This includes individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), over 200,000 people require emergency medical care due to allergic reactions to food each year.iv
What does all of this mean for the workplace? As with any employee who has a disability, the employee is responsible for informing the employer of the food allergy and the need for a reasonable accommodation.
A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way a job is performed that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities, unless it would cause undue hardship for the business. There are three categories of “reasonable accommodations”: (1) changes to a job application process; (2) changes to the work environment, or to the way a job is usually done; and (3) changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.v Equal benefits and privileges of employment include, but are not limited to, employer-sponsored: (1) training, (2) services (e.g., employee assistance programs (EAP’s), cafeterias, lounges, gymnasiums, auditoriums,), and (3) parties or other social functions (e.g., retirement and birthday celebrations and company outings).vi
As employers, we want to ensure that all employees can perform their job and have access to the benefits and privileges of employment. However, employees with food allergies may need reasonable accommodations in order to be able to enjoy all aspects of their jobs. A document developed by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), Job Accommodations for People with Food Allergy, provides guidance on how employees with food allergies can be accommodated in the work place. Remember, under the ADA, each situation must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Some ideas contained in the JAN guidance include:
Food allergies affect an estimated 15 million individuals in the United States. Each year, food allergies result in over 200,000 people requiring emergency medical care due to allergic reactions to food. Making changes to the work environment and providing reasonable accommodations can ensure that all of your employees can enjoy and participate in the same benefits and opportunities as other employees at your company.