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High School Diploma Requirements, Potential Violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Recently, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued an Informal Discussion Letter (“EEOC Letter”)[1] which opined that employers who require high school diplomas as a minimum standard for job applicants, and who often advertise as such, may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, because they screening out individuals who are unable to graduate because of a learning disability.  Though Informal Discussion Letters give guidance regarding a particular inquiry and are not binding precedent, this letter serves as a wake-up call for employers of skilled and unskilled workers alike, who have long considered a high school diploma requirement to be a minimal, achievable and useful standard to ensure that its workforce possesses basic reading, writing and math skills.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq. (“ADA”), is applicable to employers who employ more than fifteen (15) employees, and prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual – those who can perform the essential functions of the employment position with or without reasonable accommodation -- on the basis of his or her disability, during all stages of the employment relationship, including throughout “job application procedures;” during the “the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees;” and with regard to “employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”  42 U.S. C. 12111(8) and 12112.  A disability is defined with the ADA as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual” [generally including caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working]; or “a record of such an impairment; or “being regarded as having such an impairment”.  42 U.S.C. 12102.

According to the recent EEOC Letter, an employer may still apply the high school diploma requirement (and presumably other degree or certification requirements) if it can demonstrate that such a requirement is “job related and consistent with business necessity,” which essentially requires a showing that the functions of the particularly job position cannot be easily be performed by someone who does not have a high school diploma.  For example, for a legal secretary, who must possess significant reading, writing, word processing, and math skills to perform such a job, a high school diploma requirement may be deemed “job related and consistent with business necessity,” but the same may not be true for a grocery bagger, hair stylist or delivery driver, who may not utilize the same skills taught in high school as a part of his or her job functions.

In light of this letter, and the reality that the EEOC may soon be inclined to apply this new position in the right case, it is prudent for employers to take another look at its job advertisements and applications to determine: (1) whether a high school diploma is actually essential to the job position; (2) what skills taught in high school are actually required for the position; and (3) how they can revise their job advertisements and applications to reflect the skill requirements necessary to the particular job, rather than a threshold diploma requirement.  It is also advisable to re-train management to ensure that they are not discriminating against applicants with learning disabilities who can perform the essential job requirements with or without reasonable accommodation, but who have not been able to achieve a high school diploma.  While an employer is not required to prefer the learning disabled applicant over other better qualified applicant, it must consider the applicants true ability to perform essential job functions through demonstration of skills, work history considerations, etc., in lieu of a strict high school diploma requirement.

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This article does not constitute legal advice.

[1] A copy of the letter can be viewed at:  http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/foia/letters/2011/ada_qualification_standards.html.

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