The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to address the difficulties disabled workers have traditionally experienced in getting and keeping gainful employment. Under the ADA, an employer cannot refuse to hire a disabled applicant who is capable – with reasonable accommodations – of performing the functions the job entails. Similarly, an employer cannot discharge a disabled employee if the worker is able to perform the essential duties of his or her position with reasonable accommodations.
The Interactive Process
So how does an employer go about accommodating a disabled employee? Typically, upon learning that an employee has a disability which impairs his or her ability to perform a job function, the employer must initiate the “interactive process” required by the ADA. This process can be informal, but generally must entail a mutual conversation between the employer and employee discussing which of the employee’s job functions are considered “essential,” whether the employee’s disability impacts an essential job function, and whether the inability to perform an essential function can be addressed through a reasonable workplace accommodation. If the affected function is not essential, then an accommodation may not be necessary. If, however, the employee’s disability prevents him or her from performing an essential job function, the parties must work together to identify possible accommodations to assist the employee in the performance of his or her duties.
While employers are required by the ADA to explore potential workplace accommodations, they need only employ accommodations that are “reasonable.” Thus, an employer is not obligated to implement accommodations that are extremely expensive or highly disruptive to the workplace; those accommodations which present an “undue hardship” for the employer are not considered reasonable and are therefore not mandated by the ADA. If no reasonable accommodation is available to assist a disabled employee in performing the essential functions of his or her job, an employer is not required to retain the individual as an employee.
Important Points About Workplace Accommodations
Because the interactive process can be informal and the reasonableness of accommodations may vary from one workplace to the next, both workers and businesses often misunderstand what the ADA requires. Below are some important considerations to keep in mind whenever an employee informs his or her employer of a disability which may impact work performance:
1. The employer has the responsibility to initiate the interactive process whenever it is made reasonably aware a workplace accommodation may be necessary. Thus, where an employee brings an injury or disability to a supervisor’s attention, that supervisor must ask whether the employee needs or is seeking an accommodation, and if so, must explore whether an accommodation is necessary.
2. Employers are not required to implement the best accommodation or the accommodation the employee most desires; the accommodation is merely required to be reasonable and effective in assisting the disabled employee in performing his or her essential job functions.
3. Once an accommodation is granted, it can be periodically reviewed and altered. Nevertheless, and employer cannot improperly or arbitrarily interfere with an accommodation once granted.
4. An employer does not have to create a special position for an employee who is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her position even with an accommodation. However, if no reasonable accommodation can be made to keep the employee in his or her original position, the disabled employee may be reassigned to a more suitable vacant position.
5. Employers may modify or reduce an employee’s work schedule as a reasonable accommodation.
6. An employee may reject a workplace accommodation offered, but he or she will still be expected to perform all of the essential functions of his or her position without the accommodation.
7. Employers may require verification of the claimed disability.
8. Employers do not have to provide an accommodation for the employee’s personal use (eyeglasses, wheelchairs, etc.).
9. Upon learning of an employee’s disability which may require a workplace accommodation, an employer cannot force an employee to take unpaid leave while undergoing the interactive process.
The examples above are some of the most common issues arising under the ADA’s workplace accommodation provisions. If you encounter a specific problem with the ADA accommodations process not addressed above, or if you are in need of additional assistance, you should consult an attorney at once.
Dawniell A. Zavala is an associate attorney in the labor group at Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen in Sacramento, California. Her practice focuses on representing public employees in labor and employment disputes.