The wording of this company’s job descriptions unexpectedly cost it in court.

James Szarawara worked night shifts as an emergency dispatcher for the County of Montgomery in Pennsylvania.

After a couple years of the job, he was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia, and shortly thereafter, he began experiencing headaches, dizziness and loss of focus with increasing, though unspecified, frequency.

After he was disciplined for poor performance one day, Szarawara told his employer about his illnesses, saying that he believed his diabetes was the reason for the headaches and dizziness that were responsible for his poor work.

Soon after, he gave his manager a doctor’s note explaining his illnesses. The letter closed by saying that Szarawara’s long-term health would be best served by “proper sleep patterns which . . . includes working during daytime hours.”

The county offered Szarawara unpaid medical leave, but he declined. He countered by saying he could work part-time night shifts. He also noted that he would agree to a transfer to a lower paying day job. The county refused, so Szarawara resigned.

Does ‘various shifts’ mean ‘night shifts’?

Szarawara sued, claiming he could have done all the essential functions of the job if he could work some day shifts.

The county responded by saying that working night shifts was an essential function of the job — after all, the job description said employees in Szarawara’s position needed to work “various shifts.”

But the court shot that argument down. The company was right about the language used, but the court disagreed the implication that “various shifts” meant “night shifts.”

The lack of specific language wasn’t enough for the court to dismiss the case, and it sent it on to trial.

Maria Danaher, writing for Employment Law Matters, had the takeaway for HR:

This case is a wake-up call to employers who have not recently reviewed written job descriptions. As evidenced by the court’s analysis of Szarawara’s claims, a vague or general statement regarding the functions, requirements, or limitations on job duties may not be interpreted by the court to create an “essential function” of the position. Functions should be described completely and objectively, and in enough detail to support an argument related to the functions’ importance to the overall job duties.

The case is Szarawara v. County of Montgomery.

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