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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.
Job Accommodations for People with Food Allergy
Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE)
Life with Food Allergies at Work by Food Allergy Research and Education
Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S.
U.S. Department of Justice – Settlement Agreement between the United States of America and Lesley University (DJ 202-36-231)
U.S. Department of Justice – Questions and Answers about the Lesley University Agreement and Potential Implications for Individuals with Food Allergies
WADA “ADA Live!” Episode 42: Food Allergies and the Rights of Individuals with Allergy-Related Disabilities Under the ADA
WADA “ADA Live!” Episode 48: Food Allergies and the Rights of Individuals with Allergy-Related Disabilities Under the ADA
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Small Employers and Reasonable Accommodation
About the Author
Pamela Williamson currently serves as the Assistant Project Director of the Southeast ADA Center, a member of the ADA National Network, and a project of the Burton Blatt Institute of Syracuse University. During the past 19 years, she has served in various roles including Project Director and Director of Training and Technical Assistance.
i Food Allergy Research and Education (n.d.) Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.foodallergy.org/life-food-allergies/food-allergy-101/facts-and-statistics.
iii Southeast ADA Center. (March 1, 2017). WADA ADA Live! Episode 42: Food Allergies and The Rights of Individuals with Allergy-Related Disabilities Under the ADA. Retrieved from https://www.adalive.org/episode42.
iv Food Allergy Research and Education (n.d.) Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.foodallergy.org/life-food-allergies/food-allergy-101/facts-and-statistics.
v U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (March 1999). Small Employers and Reasonable Accommodation. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/accommodation.html.
vi U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (October 17, 2002). Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html.
vii Job Accommodation Network. (February 27, 2013). Job Accommodations for People with Food Allergy. Retrieved from https://askjan.org/publications/Disability-Downloads.cfm?pubid=1627496&action=download&pubtype=pdf