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Essential job functions in an employment discrimination context

A Northern California resident who has done any sort of job search in recent years has probably noticed that job descriptions include a list of what are called "essential job functions." More than just being a way of describing the job, these essential job functions are important for legal reasons, particularly for California employees who may have a disability.

The reason is that the Americans with Disabilities Act balances the government's strong desire to have workplaces that are free from discrimination based on one's physical or mental limitations against the fact that employers must be able to hire qualified applicants for positions they wish to fill.

To give an example, a trucking company does not have to hire a driver who physically cannot operate a truck; refusing to consider such a person is not unlawful discrimination. Driving is an essential function of the job, and a company does not have to hire someone who cannot do the work.

However, an employer is not free to use its list of essential job functions, that is, duties that the job absolutely requires, as a wish list for an ideal candidate. That would make the list an essential end-around the government's anti-discrimination laws.

What an employer considers essential depends on why the employer has the position available in the first place, who all can perform the supposed essential function and what training and knowledge are actually needed to do the work. Additionally, what other workers in the same position are or were actually expected to do day to day, and what would happen if they did not do so, are considerations.

Employers cannot discriminate against people with disabilities simply by dubbing a job-related duty as essential. In such circumstances, a California employee may still have a valid employment discrimination claim.


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