By April Cunningham, Associate Editor
Employers in Ontario are ringing in 2017 faced with new obligations under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), says Toronto employment lawyer Doug MacLeod.
Companies with less than 50 employees are expected to comply with a series of regulations as of Jan. 1, 2017.
While MacLeod says the changes are important — and in large part likely a reflection of the increased challenges faced by employees dealing with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety — he expects non-compliance rates to be high due to a lack of publicity and awareness.
“It’s the mother of all regulations,” MacLeod, principal of MacLeod Law Firm, tells AdvocateDaily.com. While most employment laws involve rules against certain actions such as discrimination, the new regulations impose positive obligations requiring action, he says.
“If an employer is not aware of the law, then they’ll be violating it inadvertently,” MacLeod says.
The 11 obligations, which were imposed on larger companies in 2016, are not entirely onerous and generally require a sweep through employer policies, he says.
For example, all employers are required to notify job applicants that accommodations for those with disabilities will be provided on request. Another example is employers are expected to provide career development and advancement opportunities while taking accessibility needs into account.
“Most larger employers would have a human resources staff member who would likely be aware of the new law and ensure compliance,” MacLeod says. “But when the regulation is extended to small employers, my guess is many won’t do anything because the law likely wouldn’t come to their attention.”
By comparison, recent changes toughening Ontario’s sexual harassment law in the workplace received massive media attention, MacLeod says.
The most important change to AODA requires employers with 50 or more workers to come up with an individual accommodation plan for employees who request one, he says.
“Not all disabled people ask for accommodation, but some people do,” MacLeod says. “For example, many with mental disabilities are fully functional at work and choose not to disclose.”
The accommodation plan may involve physical alterations, such as ergonomic changes to a keyboard or chair to help someone who has been injured. Someone with mental health disabilities may require a more complex accommodation, MacLeod says.
“There have been recent cases where the disability was caused because of an interaction with one’s supervisor,” he says. “So the requested accommodation was to not work with the person anymore, or to not remain in the same location.”
The employer may discuss other options for accommodation with the staff member, and may require updated medical information to fulfil the request, he adds.
“There is a process you have to follow.”
While it may be challenging for smaller employers to keep pace with changes to legislative requirements, MacLeod says it’s probably a reflection of the rise of employment law cases involving disabilities.
“It’s huge,” he says, adding they make up close to half of all complaints to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. “We’re increasingly seeing mental disability claims, as anxiety and depression are affecting people’s ability to work.”
It’s important for employers to recognize that those disabilities are often invisible and shouldn’t cost someone their job, he adds.