Are you able to obey this law?

Posted: Jun 07, 2006 12:05 AM

Some shortsighted employers don't give jobs to people with disabilities, even when the disabled could do the work. Politicians thought the way to stop this discrimination was to make it illegal. That's what politicians tend to do. But in the real world, even Congress can't wish problems away. Their well-intended solutions create nasty unintended consequences. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is proving to be yet another sad example.

 Consider what an employer has to do to try to obey the ADA. Even the job interview is a minefield. Julie Janofsky, a labor lawyer, patiently explained to me that it is forbidden even to ask certain disability-related questions. If an applicant comes to my office with his arm in a sling, I can't ask whether he's disabled. It would be "discriminatory."

 I can't ask about past drug addiction -- or even about current addiction, if the drugs are legal. "You can't ask me if I'm addicted to Valium," said Janofsky, "because if I'm addicted to Valium now, I'm protected under the ADA."

 How are employers supposed to understand this? I confronted Gilbert Casellas, head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Clinton. He said the ADA is a wonderful law, and had the nerve to say it isn't complicated. "None of this stuff is rocket science," he said.

 So I asked him about Janofsky's example: If you come to me applying for a job, and your arm is in a sling, can I ask you why your arm is in a sling?

 "You can ask -- you know what? I'm going to ask you to stop the tape, because we're getting into -- "

 I was incredulous. "You want to check?"

 The head of the EEOC had just said the law wasn't complicated, and every employer in America is supposed to obey it, but he had to consult one of his experts.

 They discussed the issue for about five minutes, and then Casellas indicated he was ready to resume. So I asked again, and this time he had an answer: "You can ask me whether I can do the job."

 "You say the interview rules are simple," I said. "[Yet] you run the EEOC [and] you don't even understand them well enough. You have to stop and ask your assistant!"

 "Well, because you asked me a specific question. . . ."

 That's the point! Every employer is in a specific situation, and lawyers are ready to pounce if they don't do everything according to the law. And the laws are now so complex, it's impossible to obey all of them. Exxon gave Joseph Hazelwood a job after he completed alcohol rehab; when Hazelwood then let the Exxon Valdez run aground, a jury found that he'd recklessly gotten drunk before taking command--and that the company had been reckless to give him the job. So then the company decided people who've had a drug or drinking problem may not hold safety-sensitive jobs. The result? You guessed it -- employees with a history of alcohol abuse sued under the ADA, demanding their right to hold safety-sensitive jobs. Employers can't win. They get sued if they do, sued if they don't.

 What would the head of the EEOC say about that? Amazingly, he said, "That's an easy case." He claimed Exxon "illegally discriminated."

 So Exxon should not have to pay billions of dollars for the Valdez spill?

 Casellas answered, "Well, you know, that's another issue."

 Not his problem.

 Complicated laws like the ADA eventually hurt the people they were meant to help. The ADA has led many employers to avoid the disabled. One poll found that since the ADA was passed, the percentage of disabled men who were employed dropped. "Once you hire them, you can never fire them. They are lawsuit bombs," one employer said. "So we just tell them the job has been filled."

 This unintended consequence of the ADA shouldn't have been a surprise. If you give some workers extra power to sue, those workers become potential "bombs," and some employers avoid them.

 Politicians bragged that the ADA "fixed the discrimination problem." But what really happened is that lawyers got richer, and the disabled got fewer opportunities.