Federal and some state laws require companies to provide ADA reasonable accommodations if an employee asks for support.
Here's what you need to know:
- The Americans With Disabilities Act stipulates that businesses should provide support for disabled workers if requested
- Reasonable accommodation can vary widely — for example, while 52% of accommodations are requests for leave, the remainder could relate to changes in the work environment, work schedule, or another physical barrier
- For employers, reasonable accommodations offer a way to encourage structural change to support all workers, while also limiting the burden
- Employers don’t have to agree to changes that could bankrupt them, but if they choose to invest in accommodations, employers can reduce costs with tax credits
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, it has been illegal for businesses big and small to discriminate against workers based on their disability. But the act also stipulates that businesses should provide support for disabled workers if requested.
Reasonable accommodation can vary widely. For example, while 52% of accommodations are requests for leave, the remainder could relate to changes in the work environment, work schedule, or another physical barrier.
Only 1% of requests relate to job functions, highlighting that work isn’t an issue — workplaces designed without disability in mind make work challenging.
For employers, reasonable accommodations offer a way to encourage structural change to support all workers, while also limiting the burden.
Employers don’t have to agree to changes that could bankrupt them, for example. But at the same time, if they choose to invest in accommodations, employers can reduce costs with tax credits.
To help small businesses and HR managers figure out how to navigate accommodations, we’ve created this brief guide and checklist.
Is your business eligible for reasonable accommodation mandates?
The federal level mandates that employers with more than 15 employees should provide reasonable accommodations. But many states require a lower minimum or have additional specifications.
States with specific ADA requirements include:
- Washington, D.C.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- Also, New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Regardless of your state-specific laws, it’s better just to build, rent, or create processes with accessibility in mind. This ensures that you’re ahead of the curve in terms of regulation, and you can better support both employees and customers.
What are requests for accommodations? (And how to respond)
A request for reasonable accommodation isn’t a formal document — in fact, it’s often a verbal comment or request.
Requests for accommodations can be made at any time, too, not simply during hiring or employee onboarding. In some cases, family members or medical professionals may also make recommendations on behalf of an employee.
The challenging aspect of requests for accommodations for employers stems from the follow-ups. The last thing you want to do is create potential legal missteps by requesting documentation or asking about other medical conditions.
The last thing you want to do is create potential legal missteps by requesting documentation or asking about other medical conditions.
Generally, employers can ask for clarification regarding the specific condition and how the accommodations would help employees better fulfill their essential job functions.
If the employee cites a condition that isn’t “virtually always” a disability, it is possible for employers to ask for medical confirmation related to the condition and the request. But it’s a fine line to walk.
Once your team concludes that accommodations are necessary, you must act in “good faith” to provide reasonable accommodation.
What counts as accommodations?
There’s no exact definition of “disability” since it covers a wide range of conditions, and as a result, it’s hard to summarize reasonable accommodations. Supporting employees can take many forms, including:
- Making the workspace accessible (adding a ramp, widening footpaths, etc)
- Restructuring roles in reducing marginal responsibilities
- Flexible work schedules or remote work options
- Modifying tools and equipment
- Adjusting examinations, training, career progression, and policies
- Providing a leave of absence
- Using an interpreter or translator
- Reassigning the employee to a more supportive supervisor
You shouldn’t have to alter essential job functions or reduce standards to meet accommodation needs. Furthermore, workplace accommodations are related to job functions — not personal use.
Employees may not have a specific recommendation in mind, or they may have several. When this happens, you can always choose a more feasible accommodation, so long as it’s effective and the employee is kept in the loop.
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Can I deny accommodation requests?
Sometimes, providing accommodations can be seen as unfeasible, usually when such a request would cause “undue hardship.” Claiming hardship, whether because of operational disruption or cost, should be your last resort.
In most cases, it’s possible to find a solution that works for everyone without disrupting day-to-day operations or significantly impacting cash flow.
But what constitutes an “undue hardship?”
There’s no exact definition, simply because there are so many variables. Your organization’s cash flow, size, net cost, access to government resources, or even potential tax credits are all considered.
Some employers and HR managers feel tempted to deny requests to avoid potential complaints of preferential treatment. This route not only negatively affects disabled workers but can also foster toxic environments.
Complaints can be handled with a simple reminder that the company disability policy ensures that all employees get the support they need to complete their work.
Keeping documentation confidential
You’ll want to create a separate file for ADA-specific requests to protect employee privacy. It’s important to remember that medical data should always be securely stored and kept private.
There are only a few times when it’s OK to talk about employee accommodations and conditions:
- Explaining the accommodations to supervisors and managers
- First aid workers may be told if an emergency treatment may be needed
- Government and insurance workers may need access to medical information to ensure ADA compliance
- Unions may be given information if the accommodation conflicts with bargaining agreements
Are there tax credits for ADA accommodations?
There are federal-level tax credits available for employers who choose to accommodate their disabled employees. To qualify, a business must have fewer than 30 employees, or gross receipts should be less than $1,000,000. Accommodation expenses must be more than $250 but less than $10,250.
Small businesses can claim up to $5,000 per year. But if you’re removing architectural barriers or renovating transportation vehicles, you could potentially claim up to $15,000 per year.
The ADA reasonable accommodation checklist
- Create an ADA accommodation file that is separate from employee files to store documents.
- Accept the request and begin investigating solutions.
- Ask for employee authorization to follow up on the condition and potential accommodations.
- Request medical documentation related to the specific condition and solutions, if necessary.
- Make a list of recommended accommodations and review the feasibility of each one.
- Meet with the employee to review potential options. Keep a record of this discussion.
- Select accommodation and document why it was chosen. If a specific request was denied, cite why it would cause undue hardship. The more specific the information, the better.
- Review your selection with your legal team to ensure that your decision complies with local, state, and federal law.
- Follow up with the employee about the decision.
- Continue to monitor the accommodation to ensure that the employee is getting sufficient support.
Common questions to ask regarding reasonable accommodation
When creating documentation for an ADA accommodation, you’ll want to be as transparent and thorough as possible. You may want to consider adding easy-to-answer, direct questions into your investigative workflow:
- Does an employee have an impairment, and if so, what is the condition?
- What aspects of life does the condition affect (breathing, standing, walking, etc)?
- What are the individual’s abilities and limitations?
- Do they require medication or other regular aids?
- How long does the condition typically last?
- What are the essential functions of the job?
- What are the supplemental or marginal functions of their role?
- How does the condition affect employees’ ability to perform their essential duties?
- Can they perform essential functions with or without accommodations?
- What type of accommodation was requested?
- Did you investigate alternatives to the accommodation requested?
- Was the accommodation discussed with the employee?
- Did you request help from an accommodation-based network to find a solution?
- Would providing reasonable accommodation cause harm or cause undue hardship?
- If claiming undue hardship, what financial and operational evidence supports the claim?
Keep scheduling flexible to accommodate employees
Considering leave requests are one of the most common accommodations, why not keep a flexible schedule? Post-pandemic, workers and employers are used to working on their own time, and even setting up a workspace at home. Flexible working arrangements can be a great way to keep everyone happy.
For more on how you can successfully implement flexible work schedules at your office, get our in in-depth Flexible Working Arrangements Report for all the details.