Beginning Sunday, all but the smallest companies face a new set of federal regulations, as the first provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act take effect. In short, the law prohibits denying a job or promotion to someone because of a disability, and it requires employers to make the workplace accessible.
Business owners, fearing the cost of compliance and the impact on hiring policies, are dreading the deadline. But employers need not hire less qualified employees nor spend a lot of money to accommodate disabled employees, say disabilities rights advocates.
"The ADA is a civil rights statute, not an affirmative-action statute," said Liz Savage, an attorney and the national training director for Disabilities Rights Education and Defense Fund. "No quotas or goals are required. . . . You are not required to alter qualifications. You can hire the most qualified individual."
If employers must choose between two qualified candidates, for example, two people who type the requisite 80 words per minute for a secretarial position, the hiring decision must be based on some distinction other than the person's disability, Ms. Savage said.
But a person may not be denied a job because he requires special accommodations to do the job, said Ms. Savage, who conducts ADA seminars nationwide. Employment provisions of the act go into effect for all businesses with 25 or more employees Sunday. Businesses with 15 or more employees must comply by July 26, 1994.
To level the playing field for employees with disabilities, Ms. Savage said employers will have to make restrooms, lounges, cafeterias, conference rooms and other workplace facilities accessible. However, if accommodations are not readily achievable because of high costs, the law allows businesses to put off the renovations until they can afford it, she said.
Among other things, the act prohibits:
* Forcing an applicant to disclose disabilities.
* Discriminating against applicants with disabilities because of actual or feared increases in insurance costs.
* Segregating employees with disabilities. For example, employees with disabilities may not be clustered in one particular area.
* Denying an employee with disabilities reasonable accommodations if they do not result in undue hardship. The law does not specify how much of an expenditure is "undue hardship." That is decided on a case-by-case basis.
Marvin DeShong, who owns a grocery store, agrees with the goals of the legislation, but for many business owners like himself "cost is the major factor."
As an employer with fewer than 15 employees, Mr. DeShong is not required to comply with the employment provisions, but he is still required to make his store accessible to customers with disabilities.
For small businesses with up to 30 employees or up to $1 million in gross annual receipts, tax credits are available for compliance. Owners can write off up to 50 percent of expenditures greater than $250 but less than $10,250, Ms. Savage said.
She said employers who make an effort to change probably don't have to fear lawsuits.
"What's important is good faith," she said. "The disability community is not going around suing businesses that are trying to comply with the law."
Ms. Savage advises employers to document accommodation efforts as proof of good faith. She also recommends they write out job descriptions before advertising for a position. Rather than asking an individual if he has a disability, Ms. Savage suggests asking him if he can perform all tasks listed on the job description.
Not all accommodations for employees with disabilities are physical. Some, such as flexible schedules and task swaps, are inexpensive and relatively easy to implement, she said.
"You are not required to supply the most sophisticated accommodations for your employees," she said. "A Cadillac accommodation is not required when a Ford accommodation will do."
Some accommodations that may be perceived as costly are relatively cheap. Just ask Bill Kelly, manager of staff services at freight hauler Conrail in Philadelphia.
To hire Brian J. Woznicki as a computer programmer, Conrail had to widen some doorways, raise his desk to accommodate his wheelchair and provide an arm support device so he could use the keyboard. Conrail didn't hesitate to provide the accommodations.
"The cost was nominal. It was so little that I couldn't tell you what it was," Mr. Kelly said. "It was something the maintenance department did."
Accommodating disabled employees will allow employers to tap into an alternative labor pool that could help the company in the long run, Mr. Woznicki said.
"It's great to be productive and on my own and earn a salary that enables me to support myself and my wife," said Mr. Woznicki, who is expecting his first child in September. "It takes a lot of education to help employers look behind a person's disabilities and see the many skills he possesses."
Ms. Savage said employers may find it worthwhile to work with members of the disabled community on issues of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Asking their advice can not only build goodwill but may also spare them the high cost of consultants and unnecessary equipment and services.
Kenneth Hawkins, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Pennsylvania, said that many consultants will charge several hundred dollars for informational conferences, when similar conferences are given free or at nominal cost by disabilities rights groups and federal agencies.
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Information on employment provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act is available from the Disabilities Rights Education and Defense Fund at (800) 466-4232.