January 2015 Bar Bulletin
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January 2015 Bar Bulletin

Accommodation of Cold Sensitivity in the Workplace

By Patrick S. Pearce


When the weather is cold in the winter or hot in the summer, it affects everyone. Some people are affected by temperature more than others, however, due to conditions that may qualify as disabilities under federal or Washington law. Properly addressing an employee's expressed concerns regarding temperature sensitivity may obligate employers to make reasonable workplace accommodations.

An initial question in any evaluation of potential need to accommodate a disability is determining whether the obligation to accommodate exists for the employer. The number of an employer's employees is a threshold consideration in assessing whether accommodation obligations apply.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), private employers engaging in commerce and with 15 or more employees for each working day in each of 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or previous year fall within the scope of the statute.1 Washington and unincorporated King County have set a lower threshold, effectively defining a qualifying employer as any person employing eight or more workers.2 The City of Seattle set its threshold at one employee.3

While most employers of sufficient size are covered, some exceptions do exist. Examples include nonprofit religious organizations and qualifying private fraternal organizations.

If an employer meets the threshold staffing headcounts provided under the ADA or the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) or a local ordinance, an employer's obligations to assess potential accommodation for temperature sensitivity will be triggered when the employer has notice there is a potential issue. The required notice can come from either the employee raising the issue with the employer and linking it to a performance concern or from the employer raising the issue spontaneously based on the employer's observations.

With notice received, the employer is obligated to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine the nature and extent of the condition to determine whether a qualifying disability exists and what reasonable accommodations may be available.4

To qualify as a disability under the ADA, the condition in question must impact an individual's major life activities.5 Major bodily functions such as reproductive or circulatory system operation may qualify, along with life activities such as working, concentrating and performing manual tasks.

Temperature sensitivity in and of itself is unlikely to be considered a disability. Temperature sensitivity as a symptom of a qualifying condition, however, may reach the standard. A number of different physical conditions and illnesses can qualify as a disability requiring accommodation and include heightened sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures as a component. Some examples of conditions that can present temperature sensitivity as a symptom include arthritis, lupus, Raynaud's phenomenon,6 fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and anemia.

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