A Massachusetts woman is now without a job after she claims she lost a job offer due to her severe peanut allergy.
Kameela Coleman said she was scheduled to start her job working as scheduling coordinator at a dental outpatient clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital this week. However, before she started the job, she disclosed that she had a peanut allergy, which could result in throat swelling and hives.
After telling hospital administration about her allergy, she said she was asked multiple questions about the severity of her allergy and what conditions could possibly set off a deadly reaction. After a long interview, Coleman said the administration rescinded the job offer telling her they could not offer her a safe work environment, she said.
“I kept saying to them I wasn’t asking them to make any accommodations for me,” Coleman said.
However, in a statement hospital officials wrote ABC News that the decision was made out of safety concerns for Coleman.
Coleman, 37, said she has not decided if she will pursue legal avenues but experts said the case shows the grey area for employers and employees when dealing with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment.
Experts said that the severity of the allergy could determine if Coleman would be legally covered under the law. Even with a severe allergy, employers can argue that hiring a person with a disability would result in an “undue hardship” for the employer.
Daniel Schwartz, an employment lawyer at the Shipman and Goodwin law firm and publisher of the Connecticut Employment law blog, said the ADA could be applied to a severe food allergy, but that the law is really designed to allow the employer and employee to talk about reasonable accommodations.
“If an employee with a peanut allergy was looking to be hired to work in the warehouse of a peanut butter manufacturer, that may not be realistic,” said Schwartz, who emphasized he was speaking generally because he was not working with Coleman. “A hospital may have some concerns as well. But allergies should be handled on a case by case basis. Just because an employee has a food allergy, doesn’t mean that they can’t be accommodated in some instances.”
Michael Spigler, vice president of education at Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), said there are ways for employers to accommodate workers with severe allergies so that no one needs to resort to legal challenges.
“While not commonplace, we do occasionally hear about difficult workplace challenges that adults with food allergies experience,” said Spigler. “Employers can accommodate individuals with food allergies in a variety of ways, from conducting training sessions to educate staff about food allergies and anaphylaxis, to providing designated space in break room areas for an employee’s food, to making adjustments in office events that involve food to ensure the employee can participate”
Children’s Hospital officials said they are an equal opportunity employer and do not “tolerate employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities.”
“As the top pediatric hospital in the world, workplace safety is extremely important to us. As Ms. Coleman stated, she has a severe peanut allergy,” hospital officials told ABC News in a statement. “Currently in the U.S. alone there are 3 million people who suffer from peanut allergies which can be life threatening. At BCH the safety for our patients and employees is a guiding principle.”
The hospital administration also said they were working with Coleman to resolve the matter, though Coleman told ABC News she had not spoken to anyone at the hospital as of Tuesday morning and has not sought legal representation.
Coleman said she’s frustrated because her allergies have not been a major issue at previous jobs.
For 13 years Coleman worked at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, she said, where she worked as a secretary in the Intensive Care Unit, and never had a serious problem with her allergy. She said if people were eating peanuts too close she would sometimes leave the floor because she felt nauseous.
“I recognize people eat peanuts when I’m not there,” said Coleman. “I wipe down my phone and keyboard [at work]. It’s also to protect me.”
Coleman said she carries an epinephrine auto-injector, commonly known as EpiPen, with her at all times, but has only used it once after accidentally ingesting peanuts at a restaurant. The smell of peanuts can make her nauseous, she said, but she can usually leave the immediate area. During one visit to Boston Children’s Hospital to meet with occupational health officials, a hospital worker was eating peanuts nearby. Coleman said she just moved away and was fine.
Coleman said she had been excited to work at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she would typically work a day shift and get to spend more time with her 15-month-old daughter.
After getting the initial job offer, Coleman said she gave her notice at Beth Israel and enrolled her daughter in daycare near Boston Children’s Hospital. Now her daughter is at daycare all day, as Coleman waits at home hoping the hospital administration will reconsider, she said.
Coleman said she has yet to hear from Boston Children’s Hospital about any possible accommodations or changes that would allow her to work in the building.
“What I really wanted was my job,” said Coleman. “If they came to me and said it was a mistake … it’s something we can work with. I’d be at work right now. There would be no issue.”