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Workers With Epilepsy, Diabetes Gain Under Obama Disability Rule

Employers will be barred from discriminating against workers with conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes under an Obama administration rule that broadens the definition of disabilities.

The regulation makes it easier for employees to win workplace accommodations, according to a statement today from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces discrimination laws. A business group said the rule won’t be burdensome.

Workers with diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and bipolar disorder have conditions that should be considered a disability, according to the statement. Previously, employees with those conditions were sometimes denied legal protection.

“I am confident that these regulations will work well for both people with disabilities and employers,” EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum said in the statement.

Congress directed the agency to overhaul the rules after lawmakers expanded the federal disabilities law in 2008.

The requirements shouldn’t be onerous for companies, Michael Eastman, director of labor law policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Washington-based group representing more than 3 million companies, said today in an interview.

“These issues can be exceedingly difficult,” Randel K. Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the Chamber, said in a statement. “The commission gave substantive consideration to our comments and those of other stakeholders.”

Significant, Substantial

Impairments no longer have to significantly restrict a major life activity such as sleeping or concentrating on a task to be “substantially limiting” and deemed a disability, according to the commission statement. Businesses with 15 or more employees have to comply.

Short-term impairments may qualify as a disability if they substantially limit major life activities. Employees who use treatments such as psychotherapy or devices like hearing aids to cope can still be considered disabled, according to the agency.

Workers with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, HIV infection and cancer can be classified as disabled, according to the EEOC statement. That includes workers who previously had the conditions and don’t show evidence now, the agency said in the statement.

The regulation will be published tomorrow in the Federal Register.

Law Amwended

Congress in 1990 passed legislation under President George H.W. Bush that protected workers with disabilities from discrimination. The law was amended in 2008 to expand the definition after employees with impairments such as multiple sclerosis and major depression reported they were unable to be considered disabled, according to the EEOC.

Businesses must make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees unless such steps would pose an undue hardship. Accommodations can include restructuring a job, part-time schedules or granting leaves of absence, and making work areas more accessible.

Discrimination claims by workers because of a disability rose to 25,000 in fiscal year 2010, up from about 18,000 in 1997, according to the EEOC website. The agency won $76 million from employers for violations in 2010, up from $41 million in 1997.

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