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June 20, 2001
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U.S. Supreme Court has asked the federal government for its views on whether employers must hire disabled people who cannot carry out essential job functions without facing health- or even life-endangering risks.

The court made the request Monday, as it reviewed a case about the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and how it applies to the workplace.

The Chevron Corp. appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court ruled that, under ADA, an employer may not refuse to hire disabled employees even if the job poses a direct threat to their health or safety.

According to the Reuters news agency, the oil company has warned that the U.S. appeals court ruling will result in worker deaths, that it will force employers to be unwilling participants in the injuries suffered by disabled workers, and that it will open businesses up to liability awards.

Chevron said the ruling means an employer cannot "deny a job handling dangerous machinery to an epileptic who suffers uncontrollable seizures'' and cannot "remove an employee with controllable vertigo from a job scaling high structures."

The appeals court, in California, ruled that employers can require only that disabled employees not pose a significant risk to others in the workplace.

"Congress concluded that disabled persons should be afforded the opportunity to decide for themselves what risks to undertake'' when it adopted the law, the appeals court said.

The law "does not permit employers to shut disabled individuals out of jobs on the grounds that ... they may put their own health and safety at risk,'' the appeals court said.

Chevron claims the ruling conflicts with decisions by other federal appeals courts and overrides the regulations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with carrying out the ADA's provisions.

Reuters reports that that the current case involves Mario Echazabal, who first began working in Chevron's oil refinery in El Segundo, California, in 1972. Various maintenance contractors employed him.

In 1995, he applied to work directly for Chevron as a plant helper. The company rejected his application after learning he had been diagnosed with a chronic form of hepatitis.

Chevron also asked the contractor to remove Echazabal from the refinery on the grounds that his exposure to liver-toxic solvents and chemicals would make his disease worse and could even kill him.

Echazabal sued, claiming Chevron had discriminated against him based on his disability. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but the appeals court said it could go forward.

To view the Reuters story, click here.
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