Reasonable Accommodations for Food Allergies in the Workplace
By: Pamela Williamson
Introduction to Food Allergies
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
Is a Food Allergy Considered a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
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
Accommodating Employees with Food Allergies in the Workplace
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:
- Implement a policy restricting certain foods from the workplace.
- Post signs at entrances to the building and in hallways, restrooms, waiting rooms, classrooms, and cafeterias alerting people that certain foods are restricted due to a severe food allergy.
- Modify workplace policies to allow an employee to eat at his/her desk or in his/her office.
- Permit flexible scheduling so the employee with a food allergy may work when fewer people are present in the workplace to decrease possible exposure.
- Relocate an employee’s workspace to reduce possibility of exposure to foods that may cause an allergic reaction.
- Allow employees who travel for work to stay overnight in hotels with refrigerators in the rooms so they may bring their own food.
- Provide time off for medical appointments related to the food allergy.
- Create an emergency plan of action to address any issues including a training session to educate employees on food allergies and proper steps to take in an emergency situation, e.g., how to call 911.
- Allow an employee to keep emergency medication (e.g., epinephrine auto-injector or antihistamine), with him/her at all times.vii
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.