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Does the ADA cover food allergies?

Society has come a long way toward becoming more aware of food allergies. Improved food labeling and general awareness make life a little easier for those who suffer from these allergies. However, many employers need to take employee food allergies more seriously.

Although general awareness has improved, many people do not consider food allergies to be a "real" disability. If you or someone you know suffers from food allergies, then you know that's not true. These allergies present a potentially life-threatening danger.

The 'rise' of food allergies

The need for action from employers will increase. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased by around 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. As these children from the late 90s and beyond enter the workforce, employers must take steps to ensure these people will be safe while at work.

The government gets involved

The United States Congress and government agencies recognize this issue. They recently broadened the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to include food allergies and other dietary needs, such as diabetes. The ADA defines a disability as "a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity." People with severe or life-threatening food allergies may fit under the scope of the ADA.

Some ADA cases have sided with food allergy sufferers. For example, on December 20, 2012, the Department of Justice entered into an agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The university agreed to ensure students with severe food allergies can fully enjoy the university's food service facilities in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This is one of many ADA cases that resulted in agreements between an educational institution or employer and a person with a food allergy.

Your rights under the ADA

Under the ADA, employees with disabilities are entitled to legal protections intended to prevent the employee from being ignored or terminated because of a disability, including a food allergy. The ADA requires employers to engage in an interactive process with the employee to find a reasonable accommodation for the disability.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network suggests ways for an employer accommodate employees with food allergies. These suggestions include:

  • Consider prohibiting employees from bringing certain allergenic foods to work
  • Restrict areas where employees can consume allergenic foods
  • Provide additional time for lunch to allow people with allergies the chance to travel home

What you can do as an employee

Some of these suggestions may not solve the problem or may even create other issues. Food Allergy Resource & Education (FARE) has guidelines for employees to help manage their food allergies in the workplace. The organization suggests employees familiarize themselves with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendment Acts of 2008.

Other suggestions include educating managers about the employee's food allergy and the severity. Accommodations should be based on employee's safety needs, but may include designating secure storage of the employee's lunch and serving utensils to avoid the risk of potential cross-contamination.

Overall, the agencies and federal government call for employers and educational institutions to recognize that food allergy may qualify as a disability under the ADA. As such, the employer must work with the employee to find reasonable accommodation and must not retaliate against any employee who raises the issue.

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