The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is commending Prestige Senior Living and Prestige Care for committing to meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and agreeing to implement changes after settling a disability discrimination lawsuit for $2 million. The case offers lessons for all senior living and skilled nursing operators.

“We encourage all employers in the nursing and assisted living industry to follow suit and review their disability accommodation policies and practices to ensure they are in compliance with federal law,” Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, said in a statement.

In a statement to McKnight’s Senior Living, Prestige said it “is fully committed to fostering a work environment where every individual is treated with respect and dignity and is offered the appropriate accommodations to perform their responsibilities.”

According to the EEOC, former policies of the Vancouver, WA-based companies and their affiliated assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities required employees to be able to perform 100% of their job duties without restriction, accommodation or engaging in what the agency calls “the interactive process.” The federal agency also alleged that Prestige’s “inflexible leave policies” led to the firing of employees with disabilities.

“They had to be 100% healed, 100% fit for duty, or they wouldn’t be allowed to return to work” after an illness or injury, Melissa Barrios, director of the EEOC’s Fresno Local Office, told McKnight’s Senior Living.

One example from the lawsuit, Barrios said, involved a female employee with medical complications from a knee injury that her physician said would require an additional four to six weeks to heal. “Because she had exhausted her leave, they felt they were no longer obligated to accommodate any of her restrictions and so she was subsequently terminated,” she said.

“Many companies believe that, ‘Well, I have fulfilled the Family and Medical Leave Act mandate and that’s all that I need to do,” Barrios said. “But under the ADA, there are some additional obligations that employers have to address. They have to meet with the individual, see if there are any accommodations for the individual to be able to return to work and, if not, they could grant potential additional leave for that healing process — some reasonable time for that person to be able to get back to work.”

The EEOC calls that discussion the interactive process, and the need for it also applies to potential hires, Barrios said.

“When a new employee is coming into the workplace, many times, especially with hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and things of that nature, prospective employees are sent for a medical exam just to make sure that they are able to perform the duties,” she said. “But again, if there are some restrictions based on a disability, they [the employer] shouldn’t automatically say, ‘No, you are not suitable for employment.’ There is an accommodation process, and having that 100% [requirement] will obviously restrict individuals’ ability to be able to gain employment.”

In some instances, employers will not be able to accommodate someone’s needs, Barrios said, “but we ask people to at least engage in that discussion and not automatically close the door just because they’re not 100%.”

In addition to monetary relief, as part of the five-year consent decree settling the lawsuit, the EEOC said Prestige agreed to retain an external equal employment opportunity monitor to review and revise its policies and procedures regarding ADA compliance and to ensure that the companies and communities engage in the inter­active process and provide reasonable accommodations. Prestige also agreed to provide training and to designate coordinators to handle disability accommodation requests and disability discrimination complaints. Also, eligible claimants will be notified of their right to request a reasonable accommo­dation when applying to work for Prestige.

“We’re satisfied that we’ve found an equitable resolution with the EEOC and look forward putting this chapter behind us so that we can continue to create rewarding workplaces and focus on the exceptional care we provide to our residents every day,” Prestige told McKnight’s Senior Living.

The settlement covers Prestige locations in California, Oregon and Washington. The company has more than 80 locations throughout the western United States, also including sites in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Nevada, according to its website.