There are several important concepts within the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
These concepts include whether an employee is a “qualified” individual, what are the essential functions of a job and have the employer and employee engaged in an interactive process.
These concepts can arise in cases where employees are disciplined, including termination, for sleeping on the job. The first question is whether an individual who cannot stay awake is a qualified individual with a physical or mental impairment. If the answer is no, the ADA analysis should end.
Most courts have ruled against the employee on this issue. For example, courts have said that a flight instructor who cannot stay awake in-flight is not qualified for the position. Similarly, an employee whose job involves guarding prisoners is not qualified when she cannot stay awake on the job.
Other courts view the issue differently. They ask whether staying awake on the job is an essential function of the position. For example, what if a train dispatcher could not stay awake on the job? The EEOC has said that “remaining conscious” is not an essential function of the dispatcher’s job.
Fortunately, the court disagreed. It noted that an essential function of the dispatcher’s job was to prevent trains from colliding. Obviously, this can only occur when the dispatcher is conscious and alert.
Characterizing staying awake (not sleeping) on the job as an essential function of a job is important. If the inability to remain awake is caused by a physical impairment, like sleep apnea or narcolepsy, the employer must engage in an interactive dialogue to determine if there are reasonable accommodations which would permit the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.
One would think that disciplining an employee for sleeping on the job should be an easy decision. If the employee claims that there is a medical reason for the act, employers must be cautious in their approach.