What Is a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities that allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

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What Is a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?

Here's what you need to know:

  • Employers with 15 or more employees must comply with ADA accommodation requirements and should include relevant policies in their handbooks
  • A qualified individual is someone who has the experience and education necessary to do the job with or without an accommodation
  • Examples of an accommodation under the ADA include a chair for an employee or revamping a workplace policy
  • Managers should check in with the employee after the accommodation has been put into place to make sure that it is working
  • Details about the accommodation and the reason for the accommodation must be kept confidential
  • An unreasonable delay in granting an accommodation can be seen as a denial of the accommodation

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects disabled employees from workplace discrimination.

The federal law requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities that allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Employers with 15 or more employees must comply with its requirements.

Employers should include relevant policies in their handbooks

Legal experts recommend that employers have a policy in their handbook that an employee should contact HR if the worker needs an accommodation to perform the essential functions of the job.

The employer should also adopt an anti-retaliation policy. The policy should explain that the employer does not retaliate against employees who request accommodations.

The policies will come in handy if the employee’s claims go to court. In litigation the employer can show that it advised employees of their right to request an accommodation and explained how to request it.

What is a qualified individual under the ADA?

A qualified individual is someone who has the experience and education necessary to do the job with or without an accommodation.

The statute defines a qualified individual as someone “who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”

In some instances, courts have found that an employee was not an ADA-qualified individual. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held in 2020 that a shelter fabricator was not a qualified individual under the ADA.

Because of the worker’s health condition, she needed flexible footwear. She couldn’t wear the steel-toed safety shoes required for the job. The appeals court said the worker’s inability to comply with the job’s safety requirements meant that she was not a qualified individual under the federal law.

Are reasonable accommodations under the ADA expensive?

No, they don’t have to be. Employers often worry that accommodations will be costly. However, in most instances, they are neither expensive nor elaborate.

2020 survey by the Job Accommodation Network found that more than half — 56% of respondents — said the accommodations they put into place cost nothing.

The remaining respondents said the accommodations they implemented generally cost $500. The organization noted that the employer report of $500 for an ADA accommodation is a figure that has been consistent over several years.

What are examples of an accommodation under the ADA?

A reasonable accommodation under the ADA is a modification the worker needs to do the job. An accommodation can range from simple to complex.

EEOC guidance and agency lawsuits against employers show that reasonable accommodations can include:

  • A chair for an employee with a back problem. The EEOC took a New York hotel to court in 2018, alleging that it violated the ADA by refusing to accommodate an employee’s request to sit while working. The hotel required front desk employees to stand. At first, the EEOC said, the employer agreed to the request but then it revoked the accommodation a few weeks later.
  • A stool for a cashier subject to tiring easily because of lupus
  • Revamping a policy because of an employee’s disability. A retail worker with diabetes asked if she could keep a container of orange juice nearby in case of a medical emergency. The worker was diabetic. The jury awarded her $700,000. Changing a workplace policy because of an employee’s disability can be a reasonable accommodation, according to the EEOC.

Additional types of accommodations

  • Permission to sit more often. A Texas-based company that provides people to prepare and offer food samples to shoppers agreed to pay almost $3 million in 2019 to settle an EEOC lawsuit alleging that the workers were only allowed to sit on a stool for 10 minutes every 2 hours. The employer allegedly denied permission for the workers to sit for longer periods of time. The EEOC said sitting for longer periods of time could be a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities.
  • Additional leave beyond that which is already provided
  • Creating accessibility in an existing facility
  • Restructuring the job
  • Modified work schedules, including part-time work
  • Purchasing equipment
  • Modifying equipment
  • Changing tests and training materials
  • Providing interpreters or readers
  • Reassignment to a vacant position. The EEOC reminds employers that such a move is an accommodation of last resort.

No entitlement to preferred accommodation

Workers are not entitled to the accommodation they prefer. Courts have consistently held that employers need only provide an accommodation that allows the employee to do the job.

Individual assessment

Employers must perform an assessment for each employee. As a result, employers must handle each instance of an employee requiring a reasonable accommodation on an individual basis.

What if the employer can’t fulfill the accommodation request?

Failure to counter an employee’s requested reasonable accommodation is a common employer mistake. Employers should counter with their own suggestion of a reasonable accommodation if the employee’s initial request can’t be accommodated.

What if the worker turns down the employer’s suggested accommodation?

The employee may lose if the matter goes to court. A federal trial court ruled in 2020 that an employee who turned down a telework accommodation without explanation offered by an employer did not have a failure-to-accommodate claim.

Follow up on the accommodation

Managers or supervisors should check in with the employee after the accommodation has been put into place to make sure that it is working, David K. Fram, director of the National Employment Law Institute’s (NELI) ADA & Equal Employment Opportunity Services, told Zenefits in an earlier interview. If the accommodation is not effective, then a new one should be instituted, Fram said.

Confidentiality

Employees will probably be curious about the accommodation. However, employers cannot disclose information about an employee’s disability. Details about the accommodation and the reason for the accommodation must be kept confidential.

The EEOC has said that the only thing that employers can say about the accommodation is that it “acted for legitimate business reasons in compliance with federal law.”

To maintain confidentiality legal experts recommend that documents related to the accommodation be maintained in a file that is separate from the employee’s personnel file.

The “undue hardship” exception

There are instances where a covered employer does not have to provide an accommodation. If providing a reasonable accommodation would create an “undue hardship,” an employer does not have to comply.

Undue hardship means the accommodation would be “too difficult or too expensive to provide, in light of the employer’s size, financial resources, and the needs of the business,” the EEOC has explained.

Employers face a high hurdle when claiming undue hardship.

How to handle a request for accommodation

The EEOC recommends that employers have an accommodation policy and protocols in place before a request is made.

Training is also important. An employer can be liable for failing to provide an accommodation if it knew or should have known that an employee needed something.

As soon as an employer knows or should know that an employee needs something in the workplace because of an impairment, the company’s responsibility to accommodate comes into play.

In addition, a request for an accommodation under the ADA doesn’t have to be in writing and employees don’t have to use specific language.

As soon as an employer knows or should know that an employee needs something in the workplace because of an impairment, the company’s responsibility to accommodate comes into play.

Don’t delay in granting accommodations to workers

An unreasonable delay in granting an accommodation can be seen as a denial of the accommodation. Legal experts recommend that requests that are reasonable, straightforward, and easy to fulfill be provided as promptly as possible.

It’s essential to handle ADA accommodations properly

The beginning of the year is a good time for employers to review their policies and procedures on ADA accommodations and to make changes where necessary. If handled improperly, employers could pay thousands of dollars in a settlement with the EEOC or under a jury verdict.

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