Can a potential employer require me to take a strength test?

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Question:

I applied for a job with a big delivery company. During the interview, they told me every applicant has to take a strength test, to make sure they can lift and carry heavy boxes. I have a back injury that limits how much weight I can lift, but I can move boxes with the assistance of a mechanical hoist device. (I've done similar work in the past, despite my injury.) Do I have to reveal my injury this early in the process? I thought the ADA prohibited employers from going into any medical or disability-related issues until they make a job offer. 

Answer:

When an employer can require physical tests depends on the nature of the test: A truly medical test must wait until after a job offer is made. However, a physical test of an applicant's ability to do the job isn't necessarily considered a medical test. 

An employer that wants to require medical testing -- an examination that seeks information about an applicant's physical or mental health or impairments -- may do so only after making a conditional offer of employment. The employer must require the same testing of all applicants for that position. And, the employer is not allowed to make its ultimate hiring decision based on an applicant's disability, unless:

  • the applicant would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others or himself, or 
  • the screening is job related and consistent with business necessity. 

However, not every exam is "medical." An exam performed by a health care professional, in a medical setting, using medical equipment, is likely a medical exam, as is a test that is intended to identify impairments (such as a mental health screening test, which is interpreted by a health care professional). However, a test of an applicant's physical ability, such as speed, strength, or agility, is not necessarily a medical exam. For example, if all applicants for a security guard position are asked to run half a mile in five minutes, that is not a medical test. If these applicants were screened after their run to determine their heart rate, recovery time, and so on, that would be a medical test. 

Your situation sounds similar to this last example. If the job requirements include lifting and carrying heavy packages, an employer is entitled to screen applicants to make sure they can perform these physical tasks. Unless the employer goes further (for example, by testing physiological responses after the exercise or by questioning applicants about their physical condition and disabilities), this doesn't count as a medical test, and the employer is legally within its rights to require applicants to take it. 

This isn't the end of the story, however. You have a right to request a reasonable accommodation to help you take the test. For example, you might tell the employer that you have used an assistive hoist device in the past for lifting, and you will need a similar device in order to complete the test. The employer is legally allowed to ask you for documentation of your disability and need for accommodation. 

To learn more about your workplace rights when you have a disability, see Nolo's article Disability Discrimination in the Workplace: An Overview of the ADA.

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