If our employee has a child with special needs, are they considered to be in a “protected” category in any way?
The employee isn’t necessarily “protected”; however, under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act– which covers private employers with 15+ employees and all state & local government employees) there is protection for employees who are “associated” with a person with a disability. It’s a bit of a gray area, but essentially the company cannot treat a worker less favorably based on stereotypical assumptions about the employee being able to perform their job duties while also caring for their disabled child (in your example). A company shouldn’t refuse to hire a candidate because they know their child has a disability (some employers might do this due to worrying about the employee being away from work, high insurance premiums, etc.). So, even though a company doesn’t have to make reasonable accommodations for someone who is associated with someone with a disability, the employer can’t discriminate against them. The EEOC enforces the ADA discrimination laws.
Additionally, for a company who meets the guidelines for FMLA, the Department of Labor does specify that parents of adult children with disabilities (or any child with a serious health condition perhaps stemming from a disability) would be entitled to the 12 weeks/year of job protected leave. Here is a link to the Department of Labor’s guidelines.
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