New Anti-bias Restrictions Have Employers Wincing

January 24, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

New police recruits used to be routinely questioned about their health and whether they had ever used hallucinogenic drugs, but that could soon be against the law.

Questioning prospective employees aboutinjuries, allergies, heart disease, former drug use or other disorders could violate non-discriminatory hiring mandated by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, lawyers said at a workshop in Annapolis yesterday.

Considered the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the 1960s, the measure outlaws discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations. The first part of the law, which requires thatgovernments and businesses with 25 or more employees have fair hiring practices, takes effect this Sunday. Problems with handicapped access and transportation must be corrected no later than January 1995.

"This is going to have a tremendous impact on the practices of employers," said Rochelle S. Eisenberg, an attorney with a Baltimore law firm. She handed out a 33-page summary of the act's requirements to agroup of 40 Annapolis department heads and business owners attendingthe session in City Hall.

Under the new law, the definition of disabilities has been broadened to include everything from vision and speech impairments to cancer, diabetes, mental illness, back injuries and severe allergies, Eisenberg explained. The act also covers "perceived disabilities" -- such as people with high blood pressure who might be relegated to less demanding work because an employer is afraid of an on-the-job heart attack.

While the law doesn't ban drug testing, it prohibits asking prospective employees whether they've ever been addicted to alcohol or drugs. It also requires that companies make an effort to modify work schedules or find suitable alternative jobs for disabled employees. If an AIDS patient becomes too weak to workfull time, for example, the employer should arrange a flexible schedule instead of firing the person, Eisenberg said.

Several city department heads and business owners were surprised by the breadth of the guidelines. Thomas Roskelly, Annapolis' director of tourism and public information, learned he would have to install a special telephonefor the deaf. And police and fire department recruiters reacted withsome disbelief to the news that they could not ask health questions in background checks.

Marian Schooling Vessels, special assistant to Gov. William Donald Schaefer for disability issues, said the stateis still resolving such "gray areas" as asking police recruits aboutLSD use.

But she warned every employer has "got to go that extra step now."

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