WASHINGTON-For the past two years, all U.S. businesses with 25 or more employees have had to obey the edicts of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is designed to eradicate job and business discrimination against the handicapped. As of July 26, the law was extended to cover businesses with 15 to 24 employees. For these employers-including thousands of tire dealers-lawsuits and damage awards can result if they don't learn their responsibilities under the ADA.
Under the act, employers may not discriminate against qualified workers or job applicants who have physical or mental impairments. This of course covers individuals with obvious handicaps, including blindness, deafness, paralysis or developmental disabilities.
But it also includes people with mental or emotional disorders, recovering (but not current) alcoholics and drug addicts, and persons with severe or chronic illnesses such as cancer, AIDS or heart disease.
Employers must make ``reasonable accommodations'' to allow qualified handicapped workers to apply for and perform jobs, and to enjoy the same or equal benefits and privileges as employees without disabilities.
For example, during job interviews, disabled applicants may not be asked about the nature of their handicaps-but merely whether they are physically or mentally able to perform the tasks the position requires.
Once such handicapped workers are hired, employers must give them whatever they need to adequately perform their jobs. This includes special equipment, training materials, modified work schedules, wheelchair accessibility, readers and interpreters, etc.
Employers may decline to offer such accommodations if they would cause ``undue hardship'' to the business. The courts are still vague on what actually constitutes undue hardship.
But according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), ``(u)ndue hardship means that an accommodation would be unduly costly, extensive, substantial or disruptive, or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of a business.''
The public accommodations provisions of the ADA require all businesses to offer the disabled ``full and equal enjoyment'' of goods and services. Depending on the business and its customers, methods of accommodating the disabled might include:
Wheelchair ramps, special doors and removal of architectural or structural barriers;
Rearranging furniture to provide access;
Qualified interpreters for hearing-impaired customers; and
Qualified readers for sight-impaired customers.
Employees who believe themselves the victims of discrimination under the ADA may file complaints with the EEOC; customers, with the Justice Department.
Normally, the Justice Department will simply seek a court order requiring the defendant company to make the accommodations the disabled customer wants.
In the case of employees, however, defendants may have to hire or reinstate an employee, or pay unlimited amounts for back pay, medical bills and attorneys' fees. They may also have to pay punitive damages, although such damages for businesses with fewer than 100 workers are limited to $50,000.
While the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association doesn't have exact numbers on how many of its members fit in the 15-to-24-employees category, it estimates more than half of them do.
Since before the ADA went into effect for larger companies in July 1992, however, the NTDRA has sent out, free of charge, information packets on the statute to all members who have requested it.
Each packet includes a booklet of employer responsibilities under the act, from the EEOC. It also contains special regulatory reports on the employment and public accommodations provisions of the law, prepared for the NTDRA by Sesco Management Consultants of Bristol, Tenn.
Although the EEOC has received approximately 30,000 ADA-related complaints from disabled workers and job applicants in the past two years, the NTDRA said it has not heard of any complaints involving tire dealers.
``Normally we'd get feedback if there were any complaints,'' said Donald T. Wilson, NTDRA government relations director.
Some financial breaks are available for companies trying to comply with the ADA. For instance, the Internal Revenue Code allows businesses with 30 or fewer employers or $1 million or less in annual gross receipts to take a maximum $5,000 credit to offset ADA-related costs. Experts warn those employers, however, to consult their tax advisers before trying to take such a credit.
The NTDRA, meanwhile, offered a seminar on ADA compliance at its annual convention last year, and will offer another at its convention in September in Dallas.
And, according to Mr. Wilson, ``We have a whole new group of people we need to tell about this law.''