March 16, 2023

Elon Musk’s Public Mocking of Employee’s Disability Highlights the Importance of Reasonable Accommodations and Health Information Privacy

Last week, Elon Musk publicly mocked a Twitter employee who was left to inquire publicly about whether he still had a job after receiving little clarity from Twitter HR. The employee, Haraldur “Halli” Thorleiffson of Iceland, tweeted that he hadn’t had access to his work computer in nine days but had not heard from HR about whether he had been terminated. In response, Musk began to question Halli about the work he was doing before publicly revealing Halli’s disability. Halli then shared that he has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. As a result of his disability, he struggles to type for extended periods of time without his hands starting to cramp.

Although Musk later apologized for the exchange and spoke to Halli directly, he drew criticism for crassly revealing an employee’s disability and use of reasonable accommodations. Musk’s public mocking dually highlights issues that disabled workers face—access to, and understanding of, reasonable accommodations and respect of medical confidentiality in the workplace. Reasonable accommodations—or adjustments made in the workplace to accommodate or assist disabled employees in successfully performing their job duties—are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unless such accommodation would create undue hardship for the employer. In addition, the ADA requires employers to maintain the confidentiality of employee medical information and maintain personal medical information in a file separate from an employee’s personnel file. 

This exchange comes on the heels of mass layoffs at Twitter and a pending case in the Northern District of California. After requiring that all Twitter employees return to work in-person in November 2022, a handful of disabled Twitter employees filed a lawsuit challenging the edict and arguing that Musk violated ADA laws. Twitter employees who had accommodations to work remotely due to their disability were effectively terminated once Musk ordered all employees to return in person without exception. So far, no clear and consistent legal precedent about the reasonableness of remote work has been established by the courts.

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