New Disability Law Worries Employers
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The new, more liberal definition of "disability" recently adopted by the Maine Human Rights Commission has many employers worried. They say disgruntled workers who suffer from common ailments, like bad acne or high blood pressure, will now be able to sue them for discrimination.
Attorneys who represents workers, though, welcome the change. They say the old rules were so narrow that people with serious health problems, like breast cancer or diabetes, had no legal protection when their employers fired them.
The two sides will fight it out in Augusta this session when the Legislature takes up a bill that aims to align Maine's definition with the more limited one in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The commission adopted the new rules in response to a Maine Supreme Court ruling in April that effectively struck down the old rules on grounds that they departed too much from state law.
The Legislature in 1974 intended to include people with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities when it added the disabled to the class of people who deserve civil rights protection under the Maine Human Rights Act, the court concluded in its 4-3 decision.
The commission's new rules define disability as "any disability, infirmity, malformation, disfigurement, congenital defect, or mental condition caused by bodily injury, accident, disease, birth defect, environmental conditions or illness."
The rules say that more ordinary conditions, such as the flu or minor cuts and bruises, would not qualify.
The rules help both employers and workers because they provide more guidance about what kind of impairments qualify as a disability, said Patricia Ryan, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, the state agency charged with enforcing Maine's anti-discrimination laws.
But lawyers on both sides agree on one thing: The new rules represent a big change from the status quo.