Presume for a moment an employee complains to Human Resources that a co-worker’s perfume makes her want to choke. The workplace sometimes brings us "closer" together and one worker’s scent can be another worker’s source of distraction or even discomfort. If the complaining employee’s problem is just a matter of personal preference, then the employer has no legal duty to take action, but may want to explore a diplomatic way to resolve the dispute. On the other hand, a recent decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio shows that, in some circumstances, this issue can result in a legal challenge.
In Core v. Champaign Cty. Board of County Commissioners, (S.D. Ohio No. 3:11-CV-00166), an employee sued the County under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and under Ohio disability discrimination law for not accommodating her request for a "fragrance-free" workplace policy. The employee suffered from severe asthma and chemical sensitivity to certain perfumes and other scents. She began experiencing difficulty breathing at work when co-workers in her proximity were wearing a perfume called "Japanese Cherry Blossom." According to the Complaint, her initial request that the employer ask employees to refrain from wearing that perfume went unheeded. Her symptoms became more severe and eventually she had to have emergency medical treatment.
Shortly after the employee sought medical treatment, co-workers began to mock her, including in Facebook posts making fun of her condition. She also alleges that employees began to wear the perfume intentionally around her and that the employer took no action to stop this conduct.
The employee presented a request to the employer signed by a nurse practitioner asking that co-workers be advised of the employee’s sensitivity and that they be asked to avoid use of the perfume. The employer apparently communicated by email to employees asking that they not approach the employee personally, and instead communicate with her only by telephone or email. The employer also asked the employee to attempt to have face-to-face conversations with staff only in well-ventilated, open areas of the office.