[My Disability] HR Employer & School Accommodations (Section 504) & More [Free Printable Sign]

peanut allergy prevention - signs - invisibly allergic blog
There are 2 peanut-free signs in this image – can you spot both of them?

My Current Peanut-Free Employer

As of 2021, my current employer of 300+ people is located in a large building in the center of Downtown Louisville. I have felt very lucky being with the company I work for. I’ve been with them since 2016, and it is an entirely peanut-free building to accommodate my severe peanut allergy. This is the first employer I’ve had implement a no-peanut policy at such a large scale and be willing to support me and have my back when people aren’t following it. In this post, I will explain how I went about getting accommodated in my present-day situation, and discuss my previous experiences and food allergy accommodations in past workplace environments.

It’s worth noting that I have had to accept that I can’t work at all places because of my food allergy, but I can work at the vast majority with accommodations put in place. Personally, most restaurants and catering businesses would feel too risky for me, and I can think of a handful of other scenarios and employers where it doesn’t realistically make sense for me to ask someone to not use peanuts or have them around in the space if they’re a part of their business model in some way. To name a few, working at Texas Roadhouse, working for an airline, or certain job positions at a grocery store likely wouldn’t be the best fit for me.

I prefer to tell a company I’m interviewing for about my severe food allergy early on in the interview phase. Through trial and error, I’ve found this is what works best for me. It’s not something required and you should absolutely do what feels best for you, but I will say I feel empowered now asking and discussing my food allergy and accommodations. I used to feel ashamed and guilty, leading to nervousness if someone could accommodate me, but now I am more confident in my accommodation asks and needs. Plus, food allergy accommodations are becoming more and more common in recent years as an accommodation in schools and various settings. The last few times I’ve mentioned it, more than one person on the interview panel has told me they are either related to someone with a food allergy or know someone with one.

Depending on the employer, I may even mention it it before my interview if it makes going in for the interview more safe for me. But usually, I try to wait to tell them about my allergy until after the interview ends, and just make sure to keep my purse with me at all times with my mask, epinephrine, and Benadryl in it. If comes up beforehand where I need to mention it, like if someone on the panel interviewing me pulls out a snack, then I will. I prefer to wait until the end of the interview, to see if I am even interested in the job position (since I’m essentially interviewing them, too!) and then in the questions portion I’ll mention I have a severe peanut allergy that will likely require accommodations, and that I’ve worked with HR in the past to make those happen. I consider it a disability and explain it as such, since normally I am putting it on file as a disability with my employer in order to get accommodated.

At my current employer, they felt confident enforcing a no-peanut policy in the building, and pitched this accommodation to me, which was a first! In fact, it made me hesitant initially. I was questioning if they understood the severity of my allergy, but they did, and were willing to eliminate the allergen at the source. Of course, they knew just as much as I did that there was no guarantee, but it was going to be something they enforced regularly in hopes it would be largely effective.

Even though they don’t allow peanut products in the building, attempting to keep it peanut-free does come with some challenges. Often new employees forget that there’s the policy in place, or some employees will just decide to eat it, anyway. It’s always a great feeling overhearing someone else remind another person to not eat something with peanuts. A lot of people care and are on the lookout about it. One issue is that many people don’t realize peanuts/peanut butter are in something they brought in. To help with this, I gave my employer a list of peanut-less candy and peanut-containing candy to help them communicate this to others. It’s hugely beneficial overall though not having EVERYONE be able to bring peanuts into the space. It truly is such a huge relief for me. It makes me so happy that they are willing to accommodate and continue to enforce a peanut-free environment for an employee. In the past I used to lose sleep worried that no one would want to hire me because of the extra accommodations I require, so my current company has put much of that fear to rest. Now I know it’s only a matter of finding an employer where it’s a reasonable accommodation for them to make and where they care enough to discuss what they can do to keep you as safe as possible. It’s a wonderful feeling being seen in this way.

My current employer even pointed out to me that severe nut allergies are becoming more common, so it’s not unreasonable to require and enforce the building to be peanut-free, since many schools are doing it and it’s the direction we’re going as a society to be more inclusive. This was music to my ears, I was thinking to myself yes, yes, thank you, and yes! They have even taken any peanut-containing snacks out of the vending machines in the break rooms, and they said it was easy to ask the vending machine company to do this- FYI!

Here are photos of peanut-free signs throughout the building to give you an idea of how they handle my allergy. The signs are strategically placed in high-traffic areas, put at each entrance and exit to the building, and are in places where they *should* catch someone’s eye. If it’s ever not being followed, they urge people to reach out and let me know to tell them. They also send out an email regularly to spread the word to anyone new and keep it top of mind.

Food Allergies With Past Employers

In my post on my college experience, I go into detail about how I was able to have pretty normal college activities by going to a smaller university where people were more thoughtful and accommodating, and where it could be more easily enforced in classrooms of a smaller size. Surprisingly, my very first employer in High School was at a local touristy restaurant called, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, where peanut butter was served in one pancake dish on the menu, but that was it. My allergy was more manageable at the time, and I was also less educated on the risks and cross-contact, etc. and I was able to manage my allergy by avoiding the pancake dish if I ever saw it. Thankfully never had a problem- I was up at the front hostess area away from the food and it helped that it wasn’t a popular item, either!

My second employer was an insurance subrogation company where I worked at for 7 years, and they kept my specific department and “wing” of the building peanut-less. It wasn’t an ideal situation, though, I would avoid eating in the break room because peanuts were allowed in there, and I had to be careful at any events or company meetings. At that company, keeping it “peanut-free” just meant I had to ask people in my area to not eat peanuts around me, and I reminded people over e-mail every so often and informed any new employees about my allergy as well. HR wasn’t involved the same way my college or current employer was, they were more hands off, so it was up to me to do the leg-work. It definitely wasn’t the same degree of accommodating that my employer does now, but it did still help me. It was around this time in 2013-2014 that I knew for a fact I was having some type of airborne response to peanuts.

Directly before my current job, I worked at a florist who actually did the exact same thing as my employer now, making sure the building was peanut-free by putting up signs and making sure no peanut ingredients were eaten in the building, and they were the ones implementing the rule from the top down. Even though my store branch was tiny, they had a large main branch location and people there knew about our store being peanut-less. I actually started at the main branch, and the manager and I knew after my first day that it would be far too risky since everyone was eating peanut containing food everywhere we looked! They didn’t think it would be an issue, but once I started we both knew it was going to be too hard to enforce as people weren’t listening and it was too dangerous for me. I had to take Benadryl and leave a few times my first week, which I felt terrible about (even though I know it was out of my control).

Thankfully, she apologized, because in the interview she didn’t think it would be a big issue and communicated that to me. She offered for me to move to the smaller store and I was thrilled, it was a much better fit for me being in a smaller place and it was more one-on-one floral work, anyway. It almost felt like a promotion, because I had more freedom in my design work and more responsibility, which I was interested in. All of our flowers still came from the main branch, so they even went as far as to talk with the person “processing” the flowers there to make sure he wasn’t eating peanut ingredients while handling the flowers coming to our store. He said he did occasionally snack on peanuts while working, so this was good news to me that he was aware of my allergy and would not eat peanut products anymore, because essentially he could be contaminating the flowers by cross-contact, which could ignite a severe reaction for me if I touched them and then touched my face.

Filing For Disability & Section 504

Most of my jobs have been able to accommodate in one way or another after I’ve worked with them on it, but my current job has really impressed me by taking it very seriously and making it an HR issue rather than something I manage solely by myself. I want to clarify that I do not have my food allergy filed officially as a disability and don’t receive any formal disability ADA benefits. This is something I’ve wondered if I should do over the years, for my own protection, but I haven’t done at this point. I consider myself to be a disability advocate and am passionate about changing the disability laws in the U.S. to protect those with disabilities better. There are statistics and rules around disability requirements that are completely unethical and ablelist, and I will go into detail more on Invisibly Allergic about disability protection in our country. I’m still working on educating myself in the space, but in the meantime, here are some amazing social media accounts I follow for disability representation:

I want to point out, with food allergies being relatively new, understudied, and the cause unknown, many food allergic individuals consider themselves disabled, but the disability community may not recognize it the same way. It’s a gray area and has always been a topic I’ve felt unsure about discussing openly because while I do have a disability, and am airborne reactive and cross-contact reactive, I’m often told I am not disabled since I’m not filed officially as being disabled. This part of having a mostly invisible disability, in the form of an immune disorder, can be very touchy since food allergies are relatively new still. I believe more conversations are opening up around it and hope that it becomes widely recognized as being a valid disability. I have been able to live my life up until this point without being fully reliant on filing for disability, but I utilize disability services for accommodations often in my day to day and am reliant on advocating for myself for necessary accommodations to be made. Only in the past 5 years or so have K-12 school settings been having more discussions around food allergies being considered disabilities. I’ve attended a few FARE K-12 disability lectures on this, since I graduated from K-12 more than 5+ years ago, but am interested in that since it would apply to me if I were younger. Here’s the disability section of FARE’s site to check out!

Future Employers & Food Allergy Discrimination

Like I mentioned, I do prefer to let a potential employer know during my job interview stage that I have a severe peanut allergy, it’s a huge part of my life, and so I want to be transparent and ask them if they may be able to accommodate. If they don’t want to or say they can’t, it ultimately tells me it’s not a good fit, and I want to find this out upfront. However, it could be discrimination because of my food allergy. I still like to get my needs out in the open, and tell potential employers it is an “invisible disability” and explain the seriousness of my food allergy, that I carry 4 epinephrine injections in my purse at all times, and always have Benadryl.

So far I haven’t had anyone say a hard no about accommodating, but I have had one job at a hotel that used peanuts on their menu not work out due to my allergy, and I had to leave another job after a bakery serving and roasting peanuts on-site was being opened up inside my workplace. That was a hard time for me, I felt discouraged because my career plans got derailed and it felt like a rug was pulled out from underneath me. I was concerned my allergy would prevent me from being able to find a job, and was concerned about discrimination in the workplace over it. At the time, I wondered if I may need to lower my standards and just take a job with any employer that felt they could hire me and accommodate me, rather than taking a job based on my own interests. I no longer feel this way, I’ve become much more empowred to ask for my needs to be met, and I think a lot of this confidence comes from there being a larger food allergy community presence online now, it doesn’t feel as isolating as it did just 5-10 years ago. I feel that I have options and the vocabulary to discuss my allergy better, and I’m still evolving and learning about life with a food allergy. I now know that it is possible for accommodations to be made in a job that I enjoy, so that’s a promising feeling!!

There is a great 2016 NKY Tribune article on food allergy discrimination and accommodations in the workplace, so it looks a bit outdated at first-glance, but is still worth a read and quote since it is so relevant. I suggest reading it in full, because it even has tips, but here’s a section that applies about ADA protections,

“Ultimately, even though this issue has been largely absent from disability discrimination case law, it is clear that those with food allergies are absolutely protected under the ADA and are entitled to legal protections that would prevent an employer from ignoring or terminating an employee because of his or her food allergy.

Lastly, it’s important for employers to note that the anti-retaliation and discrimination provisions of the ADA would prevent an employer from firing an employee when the boss finds out about the food allergy or terminating the employee in response to a request for a workplace accommodation for the disability.”

For anyone with a food allergy, or with an allergic friend or family member, let’s normalize asking for what you want and need. Accommodations exist for a reason, there is no “normal” in society, as much as society wants us to feel there is. I do try to ask only for accommodations related to my food allergy, so that the main thing I need – there being no peanuts around-  can be accommodated and it doesn’t get too complicated with non-essentials, such as being vegetarian. I don’t need to be included in eating at each food-focused work event, but as long as food products aren’t containing peanut ingredients, I can bring my own snack and still be involved. If they want to buy me a brand of a snack I can eat, that’s fantastic, but I want the primary focus for there to not be peanuts out and about. Sometimes not eating the same meal as everyone else can deep down make me feel less included, but in those situations I remind myself that food isn’t everything, and there are a lot of foods I really enjoy and can eat that are safe! Half the time my coworkers will eat the food or snacks that are provided places and tell me afterwards that I wasn’t missing out, anyway!

Free Printable PDF: No Peanuts Sign

XO

Zoë

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