American workers with disabilities may receive inconsistent legal protections from discrimination, depending on which court’s jurisdiction they happen to reside in.
That is unacceptable, says Catholic University third-year law student Tara Beech. Her proposed remedies to the problem were laid out during a presentation, “Resolving the Split: Independent Contractors and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” offered before a mixed audience of faculty, staff, and fellow students on April 18.
Beech’s remarks were the final installment of the 2011-2012 Student Scholar Series, instituted nearly four years ago by Professor A.G. Harmon to recognize notable legal scholarship produced by students during the academic year and to foster the skills associated with presenting and defending their work in a professional conference-style setting.
Beech focused her talk on a problem that few Americans may be aware of.
Approximately 54 million Americans live with a disability, a number that some project to double in 20 years. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) offers these individuals protection from discrimination and reasonable accommodations in the workforce. However, only employees can invoke the protections of Title I.
But many people with disabilities work as independent contractors and are not defined as employees under the ADA. Consequently, they have significantly less job security than other workers do.
Another federal law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Rehab Act”), is similar to the ADA but extends protection to individuals with disabilities working for any governmental entities or any entities that receive federal financial assistance.
The problem, noted Beech, is that in some jurisdictions, federal courts hold that the Rehab Act protects not only employees, but also independent contractors. However, in other jurisdictions, federal courts hold that, like the ADA, the Rehab Act protects only employees with disabilities.
“As we continue to employ more independent contractors, we should be mindful that individuals with disabilities who are taking that work have protections from discrimination,” said Beech.
She urged courts to resolve the split by adopting a uniform interpretation of the Rehab Act to protect all workers and increase the job security for individuals with disabilities.
“The call for Congressional resolution needs to be done because it’s just good policy,” said Beech. “Individual contracting is good work for some, but it can be even more positive if they’re protected in the work that they do.”
Elaine Gardiner, director of the Disability Rights Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, served as respondent, asking questions and probing points of Beech’s argument.