Peanut Butter Redux: More on Food Allergies

Peanut Butter Redux: More on Food AllergiesThis week, we revisit the enthusiastically debated Oct. 2 column about food allergies in the workplace.

To recap: After a peanut-allergic letter writer (LW) asked a colleague to stop bringing peanut butter sandwiches to work, someone deliberately smeared peanut butter on the LW’s desk, causing an allergic reaction. The boss dismissed the LW’s complaint and said the LW shouldn’t be able to dictate what co-workers eat.

Many commenters argued that employees with severe food allergies are exclusively responsible for protecting themselves at work. The Americans With Disabilities Act, however, says otherwise.

Since 2008, the ADA says any mental or physical impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” – such as an allergy severe enough to cut off one’s oxygen supply – qualifies as a disability requiring reasonable accommodation. Any employee with such an impairment must be granted accommodations that don’t create an excessive burden on the business or co-workers.

Reasonable minds can differ on what that accommodation looks like – peanut-free eating spaces, flexible scheduling for the at-risk worker, memos about minimizing others’ exposure to allergens – and management should consider all affected parties’ needs. But one would hope that most measures would seem a small inconvenience compared with risking another person’s health or life.

Other commenters said the LW should call the cops and press charges. That was my first impulse, too. But Justin Dillon of criminal defense and civil litigation firm Kaiser Dillon – whose own child had a severe peanut allergy – convinced me that that approach would be unlikely to be effective.

He agreed that deliberately exposing someone to a potentially deadly allergen probably qualifies for assault charges, but he added that most police departments or prosecutors would lack the resources to get involved in a case involving anything short of serious injury.

Also, bringing law enforcement and lawyers into a workplace dispute should be your last resort if you’re not ready to quit. That’s why my legal sources generally recommend starting by educating management with a doctor’s note and requesting specific accommodations – all while laying a thick paper/email trail, in case legal action becomes necessary.

Still other commenters said the LW should have informed management of the allergy from Day One. I can’t fault anyone who wants to keep a medical condition discreet, but I agree that getting support from higher-ups could have smoothed the way with skeptical co-workers. Then again, I’m not sure anyone could have predicted this level of malicious sabotage.

Speaking of which, this tale has a conclusion: The LW has informed me that the peanut butter-smearing perpetrator was revealed to be not the sandwich eater, but another colleague with a grudge against the LW. After hearing the LW mention contacting the police, the assailant confessed and was fired on the spot.

Thanks to Declan Leonard, Berenzweig Leonard.

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