As of 2022, I work fully remotely from the comfort of my own home, which makes life with a life-threatening peanut allergy so much easier due to fewer opportunities for cross-contact. However, it’s not perfect. I’m a social person, so I do miss the in-person interactions and can sometimes feel cooped up. Previously I’ve worked in either hybrid work environments or 100% in-person work environments.
My previous employer was a company of over 300+ people. I worked there from 2016-2022, and it was the first employer I’ve had implement a no-peanut policy at such a large scale and be willing to enforce the accommodation on my behalf. In this post, I will explain how I went about getting these accommodations at the workplace, and discuss my previous experiences and food allergy accommodations in past workplace environments.
The Reality That I Can’t Work Everywhere
This is a topic I’ve gone back and forth on and processed for years because I know people say anyone can do anything, and I do believe that, but want to acknowledge that it may take a lot of expending additional energy to make certain work environments work for me. And I’m not always willing and able to give that on top of my normal amount of energy required at a job. So while it may be illegal for a workplace to discriminate against my food allergy, I’ve decided that I don’t want to work someplace that doesn’t want me there and won’t happily accommodate me.
So while I’ve had to accept that I can’t work at all places or careers due to my food allergy, I can work at the vast majority with accommodations put in place. Personally, most restaurants and catering businesses would feel too risky for me unless they were certified allergen-free, and I can think of a handful of other scenarios and employers where it wouldn’t 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 or Five Guys, working for an airline, or certain job positions at a grocery store likely wouldn’t be the best fit for me. However, I used to think careers like being a professional dancer, singer, actress, or comedian wouldn’t work for me, and I now believe they would with accommodations put in place, like asking for a peanut-free building and no-peanut policy to be enforced.
Mentioning My Disability In Interviews
This decision is up to each individual person to make for themselves regarding disclosing their disability or not. Personally, I prefer to tell a company I’m interviewing for about my life-threatening peanut allergy, and normally bring it up when they ask if I have any questions. If an opportunity to discuss my life-threatening peanut allergy comes up beforehand where I need to mention it, like if someone on the in-person panel interviewing me pulls out a snack, then I will not hesitate to.
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 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 I am putting it on file as a disability with my employer in order to get properly accommodated. As always, if it’s in-person, I will make sure to keep my purse with me at all times with my N95 mask, epinephrine, and Benadryl inside. Remote interviews seem more and more common these days, as does remote job offerings and hybrid roles, which helps as well if you have an airborne and cross-contact reactive food allergy.
Through my own interview 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 when discussing my food allergy and work accommodations, which is a great way to feel going into an interview.
I used to feel ashamed and guilty, leading to nervousness if someone could accommodate me, but now I am more confident in voicing my asks and needs. Plus, it helps that food allergy accommodations are becoming more and more common in recent years in schools (504 plans) and various settings. The last few times I’ve mentioned it in an interview, more than one person on the panel has told me they are either related to someone with a food allergy or know someone with one.
The Allergen-Free Workplace Accommodation In Action
At my last employer they felt confident being able to enforce a no-peanut policy in the building, and in fact, they pitched this accommodation to me as an option. I never felt comfortable asking for such a large accommodation, and their willingness made me see it was possible for an entire building to go without an allergen. In fact, I was so surprised that it made me hesitant initially if they understood the severity of my allergy and what that would entail going peanut-free, but they did. They knew just as much as I did that there was no guarantee it would be followed by everyone, but it was going to be something they enforced regularly in hopes it would be largely effective, and they put up signs around the building and made regular email announcements. If I noticed someone had peanuts, I could tell HR and they would speak to the person on my behalf. Many people didn’t know I was the person with the peanut allergy unless I worked closely with them, so it was great that HR handled the majority of accommodations for me.
Even though they didn’t allow peanut products in the building, attempting to keep it peanut-free does come with some challenges. New employees would often forget that there’s the policy in place, or some employees will just decide to eat peanut ingredients, anyway, knowing it’s not allowed. It’s was a great feeling overhearing someone else remind another person to not eat something with peanuts. A lot of people cared, were on the lookout, and took it very seriously. I really felt included and valued.
One issue I came across was that many people didn’t realize peanuts/peanut butter were in something they brought into work, such as a snickers bar or a smoothie. To help with this, I gave my employer a list of peanut-less candy and snacks, and peanut-containing candy and snacks, to help them communicate this to others. They emailed this out and would especially make sure it was known around holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day. I encourage anyone to do this for their own allergy in whatever scenario makes sense, to help educate about your food allergy. Things like snacks that frequently contain peanuts isn’t common knowledge, so these types of handmade resources specific to your own reaction history and allergy can be helpful to you and others.
Through my workplace going peanut-free I learned how hugely beneficial it is for my health and mental health to not have everyone in the building be able to bring peanuts into the space. It was a huge relief for me and made me very happy. In the past, I’ve lost sleep worrying that no one would want to hire me because of the extra accommodations I require, so this fear has been hugely put 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.
Vending Machines Are Customizable
My previous employer even pointed out to me that 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 even took the 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.
Peanut-Free Signs & Email Reminders
Below are photos of peanut-free signs throughout my old work building to give you an idea of how they handled my peanut allergy. The signs were strategically placed in high-traffic areas, at each entrance and exit to the building, and in places where they would catch someone’s eye. If the peanut-free policy wasn’t being followed, HR urged people to reach out to them and would send email blast reminders. I addition to those reminders, they would send out an email regularly to spread the word to any new employees and to overall keep the building being peanut-free it top of mind.
My Food Allergy Accommodations With Past Employers
My first job at a local restaurant was the most-risky peanut-related job I’ve had. They served one peanut butter pancake dish, but I never had any issues working at the front hostess stand and gift shop there. This was when I was age 15-18, and I was less knowledgable about cross-contact and airborne reactions. At this time there were no food allergy groups online, and food allergies in general were not taken very seriously overall.
My second employer was an insurance subrogation company where I worked for 7 years, and they allowed me to ask my specific department and “wing” of the building to be peanut-less. It wasn’t an ideal situation because 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 would remind people over e-mail every so often and would be the one to inform any new employees about my food allergy. HR wasn’t involved the same way my college or most recent in-person employer was. It was up to me to do the legwork. It was around this time in 2013-2014 that I knew for a fact I was having some type of airborne response to peanuts and I had multiple peanut allergic reactions at this workplace due to cross-contact and airborne. On holidays, I would use PTO and go home, because they would bring candy and treats in and there was no way for me to avoid people walking around the building and in my area with peanut-containing products.
Then I had a short period of time working at a few places back to back that weren’t a good fit. I worked at a art gallery hotel that used peanuts in the restaurant, and also people ate everywhere in the building, in addition to guests. There was no way for me to control my environment and I had many reactions there and only lasted a couple months before moving on.
Then I worked at an art museum, which was closed to the public for renovations and easier to control due to this. I essentially told everyone about my allergy and they took it seriously and would only eat peanut ingredients in the break room which I avoided. However, when the museum re-opened, a local bakery build a space within it and was toasting peanuts in-house. I talked to them about my allergy and they didn’t want to make accommodations, so I had to leave abruptly due to multiple airborne peanut allergy reactions.
I will say, besides this, I haven’t had anyone say a hard no about accommodations, but the peanut-roasting happening 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 have a community behind me validating my food allergy experience.
Next, I worked at a florist who actually did a great job with accommodating me, but it took some navigating and trial and error. Initially, I was at their main branch of 30-40 employees and we quickly realized the peanut-free signs weren’t being followed and people weren’t going to listen to their peanut-free policy. I had to take Benadryl and leave a few times within my first week, which I felt terrible about even though I know it was out of my control. They luckily had an opening at a smaller store with only 2 employees, so I moved to that location. They made 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. The hiring manager apologized to me, because in the interview conversation we had, she didn’t think it would be a big issue going peanut-free and communicated that to me. When I moved to the smaller store, it felt like a promotion, because I had more freedom in my floral 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 life-threatening reaction for me if I touched them.
While working at the florist I finished out my college degree, got married, and then moved on to the education company that became a peanut-free building for me. Present day in 2022, I work remotely for another company, so I don’t have to worry about accommodations at this time.
Filing For Disability
Most of my jobs have been able to accommodate my peanut allergy in one way or another after I’ve worked with them on it. 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 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. Disability isn’t a bad word to use, either.
As it stands right now in the U.S. 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 and rights in our country. I’m still working on educating myself in the space, in the meantime, I’ve been seeking out disability books and have a blog post dedicated to it which I’ll continue updating.
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 entirety of the disability community may not recognize it the same way. It’s a gray area right now, becoming more defined though in recent years, and has always been a topic I’ve felt unsure about discussing because I’m often told I am not disabled since I’m not filed officially as being disabled. 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 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, which is awesome that they finally are. 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 and applies to the millions of children with food allergies, and the numbers are growing each year. Here’s the disability section of FARE’s site to check out for more details!
My Future Employers & Handling Food Allergy Discrimination
As I mentioned above, I do prefer to let a potential in-person employer know during my job interview stage that I have a life-threatening 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 right off the bat and gauge their response. 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 would be considered discrimination if they were to not hire me due to my allergy, but also, it would be difficult to prove since I told them upfront and they could easily go with another candidate. That’s fine with me, because I personally don’t have the energy to try to force an unwilling employer to accommodate me. I’m still evolving and learning about living life with a life-threatening peanut allergy each day and each year. I now know that it is possible for accommodations to be made in a job that I enjoy, so that’s a very exciting 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. Here’s a section on 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.”
There Is No “Normal”
For anyone with a food allergy, or with a food 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 or allergic to certain chemical allergens in common cleaning products. Maybe this will change, but for right now, I don’t need to be included in eating at each food-focused work event. I can bring my own snacks and food and have a good time as long as food products present aren’t containing peanut ingredients. If an employer wants 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. While it’s true that sometimes not eating the same meal and drink as everyone else can make me feel less included, I have practiced reminding myself that food isn’t everything, and there are a lot of foods I really enjoy and can eat that are safe for me. Half the time my coworkers or husband will eat the provided food or snacks and tell me afterwards that I wasn’t missing out, anyway!
Free Printable No Peanuts Sign
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