Intermittent and episodic disability protections are now in place for us

As we make our late summer plans, some might consider a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. We don’t think […]

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As we make our late summer plans, some might consider a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. We don’t think of the fair as a place where gains in disability rights are made.  Now we should.

The fair’s operator, the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, recently played a role in a major state law change. That role was not by choice. But it is important because of the gains made.

As of August 1, what are described as “intermittent” or “episodic” disabilities are protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The expansion of disability protections for these disabilities and health-related issues is a major step for us as a community.

The human rights act is Minnesota’s anti-discrimination statute. It already prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation, familial status and age.

Definitions of protected classes covered by the act were expanded this spring at the capitol, as were remedies and enforcement capabilities for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. That is the state agency tasked with enforcing state law.

Many conditions can cause intermittent or episodic disabilities, including cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Those of us who live with such disabilities may be fine one day and struggling the next day.

Our daily life activities can be greatly affected. We welcome periods of remission and brace for the next go-round with our disabilities.

The Minnesota State Fair becomes part of the story thanks to a federal lawsuit filed in April 2021 by former employee Josianne Mell. Mell began working for the Agricultural Society in 1983 as a seasonal parking operations worker. She continued her employment with the fair and moved into a full-time administrative post in finance. She had positive job reviews during that time.

A cancer diagnosis in late 2019 led to Mell’s job loss. On returning from medical treatment, Mell was moved from her office job to a role as a “floating laborer.” Some work placed her in the fair’s greenhouse. Her ongoing cancer recovery took place at times in high heat and humidity.

Court documents indicated that Mell would sometimes vomit as a result of greenhouse conditions. She also sold cups in the ticket office, folded T-shirts and did other manual tasks. It was a far cry from her full-time work. Her hours were cut and she was terminated in October 2020.

Mell filed suit, focusing on what were seen as limited protections under the state human rights act. Another allegation she made was of discrimination under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Fair officials countered that Mell’s leave had expired and she couldn’t return to her old job.

Mell’s claim that the fair violated the state human rights act and didn’t provide reasonable accommodations was dismissed. The presiding judge ruled that her condition didn’t qualify as disability under the act and that “impairment” didn’t include transient conditions.

Mell reached a confidential settlement with fair administration two years ago. She cannot speak about the case.

Others took up her cause. The Minnesota Council on Disability for the past two legislative sessions championed changes to the state human rights act. The human rights will now cover intermittent and episodic disabilities, which can limit daily life activities.

How disability is defined in Minnesota has been expanded to mean “an impairment that is episodic or in remission and would materially limit a major life activity when active.”
The change has broad implications and will likely provide civil rights for many more people. One aspect of the change centers on cancer, which was at the center of Mell’s case. The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that four in 10 people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life. That is a major group that will now be protected.  The changes also bring the state act into line with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

It will also protect small business workers, extending protections to businesses with fewer than 15 people.

Thanks to all who worked toward this important change. We appreciate efforts to provide a more supportive and inclusive work environment for all Minnesotans. We appreciate that we now see a recognition of the total spectrum of what it means to live with a disability. We are proud that our state has made a huge step in disability rights, to make sure that Minnesotans with episodic or intermittent disabilities will receive the legal protections they deserve.

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Mental Wellness