What’s That Smell? ADA Requires Fragrance Accommodation

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

By Randi Klein Hyatt

An Ohio county government employee had asthma and a severe chemical sensitivity to certain perfumes and fragrances.  In 2008, she began to experience problems breathing at work when working near co-workers wearing Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume.  She asked her employer to ask the co-workers to stop wearing fragrances.  The county did not and the employee’s symptoms and reactions worsened.  In February 2010, she actually had to seek emergency medical treatment.  Some of the perfume-wearing co-workers mocked the employee, took to Facebook to tease her, and intentionally increased their wearing of the scent, without any disciplinary repercussion. 

After providing medical documentation of the perfume sensitivity, the county did direct employees to communicate with the employee by email, telephone or in well-ventilated areas of the office.  Despite these changes, the employee went on leave a few weeks later due to her reactions to the perfume.  She then asked for an official policy of no fragrance at work, or to work from home to accommodate her alleged disability.  The county denied the requests but did offer an alternative solution that involved the employee using an inhaler at work, being permitted to go outside to get fresh air whenever necessary, and that her co-workers would be asked (not instructed) to refrain from wearing Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume (but not all fragrances) while at work.

The employee was not satisfied and sued under state law and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008.  The court agreed that the employee’s requests for accommodations were reasonable and that the employer violated the ADA.  First, the court noted that the employee was not asking for all scents to be eliminated from the workplace but only those worn by co-workers in an effort to minimize her extended exposure to perfumes that trigger her severe asthma.  Further, the request for an official policy of no perfume at work was reasonable given the co-workers mocking of the employee, intensified wearing of an offending perfume after her emergency medical treatment, and the failure of the county to reprimand any of those employees.  Lastly, the court noted that applicable law confirms that working at home may be a reasonable accommodation in the proper circumstance.

Employers need to consider and discuss an employee’s request for accommodation with thoughtfulness and practicality in mind.  In this case, the employer made many mistakes. It ignored the employee’s requests for assistance, took no action against employees who should have received some discipline on the very same issue, and arguably put forth an accommodation proposal at the end that was “too little, too late.”  This case is a classic example of small steps early on can help avoid big messes later.  Core v. Champaign County Bd. of County Comm’rs, No. 3:11-cv-00166, (S.D. Ohio July 30, 2012).

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