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March 26, 2012

Recent reports about a U.S. Army sergeant accused of killing 17 civilians in Afghanistan have sparked concerns among employers and raised questions about returning veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Officials at a consulting service funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy are reporting that news of the tragedy led to an uptick in calls from employers concerned about workplace safety.

Beth Loy, a principal consultant with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free, confidential consulting service based in Morgantown, W.Va., said one of the most difficult challenges for employers involves having to deal with misconceptions and stereotypes about veterans and the possibility that they are affected by PTSD.

“When something happens like what recently happened in Afghanistan … employers tend to get afraid,” Loy said. “But oftentimes PTSD is very easy to accommodate.”

For example, an employee diagnosed with PTSD might need an accommodation as simple as an electronic scheduler, a noise-cancelling headset, or sound barriers placed around a cubicle, she said.

“Many individuals with a diagnosis of PTSD work without any type of accommodation,” Loy said. “If an employer contacts us, we can talk about myths, stereotypes and say, ‘Here is [an accommodation] that was low-cost and easy to implement. It’s not as difficult as you might think.’ ”

PTSD is common among military veterans, according to America’s Heroes at Work, a DOL project that addresses employment challenges faced by returning military service members and veterans living with traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

The organization noted on its website that data from the Rand Corp. suggest about one in five service members who return from deployment operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have symptoms of PTSD or depression.

More generally, America’s Heroes at Work said studies suggest about 8 percent of the U.S. population, or about 24 million people, will develop PTSD at some point in their lives. In addition, based on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which expanded the definitions of what is considered a disability, it is possible that PTSD is very likely to be covered under the [amended] Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, employers should consider complying with all of its requirements.

In the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Veterans and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Guide for Employers, a revised version of which was issued last month, EEOC noted that “it is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire a veteran because he has PTSD, because he was previously diagnosed with PTSD, or because the employer assumes he has PTSD.”

In addition, an employer’s obligation with respect to treatment of military veterans is broader under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act than they are under the ADA. When an employer has an employee returning from military leave with a disability, the first thing employers should realize is they may have obligations that go beyond what they typically had trained for under the ADA. 03.26.2012