Some Notable State Variations from the ADA

Published May 22, 2020

You’re running a small tech startup when an employee asks for what he believes is a reasonable accommodation: he would like permission to work from home on days when his fibromyalgia pain is flaring up.

You’re sympathetic, but you’re worried that your 12 other employees will also want to work from home if he’s allowed to, and you don’t want to risk quashing the business’s early momentum. So you’re leaning toward denying his request.

You know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only applies to businesses with at least 15 workers, so you’re not legally obligated to accommodate him, right? 

Not so fast. It depends on what state you’re in. 

Although the federal ADA is the preeminent disability rights statute in the U.S., nearly every state also has its own laws meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in employment and other areas. Those laws often protect more people and sometimes come with stiffer penalties.

According to Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that promotes workers’ rights, 34 states have disability anti-discrimination laws with lower employee thresholds than the 15-worker threshold set by the feds. That includes 11 states (Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin) with laws that apply to all businesses even if they have just one employee. 

There are other key differences between the federal ADA and similar state laws, as well.  States like California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York have long had laws with broader, more inclusive definitions of disability than the federal law, for example.  State laws also sometimes carry harsher punishment than the federal law.

The ADA only includes civil penalties for non-compliance: violators can be fined $75,000 for a first offense and $150,000 for each subsequent offense, and can also lose federal funding (something that’s mostly worrisome for state and local governments and some schools and nonprofit organizations).

But some state anti-discrimination laws include the potential for criminal penalties, especially for public businesses that deny access to customers with disabilities or their qualified service animals. The violations are usually misdemeanors, but some carry the possibility of short jail sentences — a powerful incentive for business owners to comply.  

The ADA also caps how much plaintiffs can receive in compensatory and punitive damages (the caps are $50,000 to $300,000 depending on the size of the employer). But states like California, New York, Florida, and Illinois have no caps on either one or both types of damages. 

Some state anti-discrimination laws also go further than the ADA and other federal laws in giving people with disabilities access to the ballot box, adding features like curbside voting at polling places or the option to mail in ballots from home. 

For a state-by-state breakdown of employment-based disability anti-discrimination laws, see this page from Workplace Fairness.

For more information on other aspects of state-specific disability anti-discrimination laws, contact your state’s National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) affiliate. Or, view NDRN contact information for every U.S. state and territory affiliate.