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The Employer's Duty to Accommodate

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations so that workers with disabilities can secure and retain employment. By requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations, the ADA has had a positive effect on the placement of disabled individuals in the workforce. As a result, the laws have raised the consciousness of U.S. employers while reducing discrimination against the disabled.

However, the language of the ADA is not precise as to what "accommodations" an employer is required to make for disabled persons during hiring and employment. There are different interpretations about what accommodations are reasonable or unreasonable, and many accommodation disputes may end up before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or in court.

What is Reasonable Accommodation?

The ADA prohibits employers from engaging in a broad range of discriminatory conduct on the basis of an employee's disability. Employers must not:

  • Limit, segregate, or classify jobs in such a way as to discriminate
  • Contract or arrange with others to discriminate
  • Utilize discriminatory standards, criteria, or methods of administration
  • Exclude or deny qualified individuals from jobs or benefits on the basis of disability

In addition, an employer must make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability." The ADA provides an exception for making an accommodation if it would cause "undue hardship" to the employer's business.

The ADA attempts to strike a balance between the accommodations an employee needs to meet the requirements of a certain job, and the investment and modifications an employer must make in order to accomplish those accommodations.

"Undue Hardship" Under the ADA

"Undue hardship" under the ADA means "significant difficulty or expense" for the employer. Factors the employer may consider in weighing undue hardship include:

  • Nature and cost of the accommodation
  • Financial resources of the business or facility that would require the accommodation
  • The number of workers at the business or facility
  • Impact of the accommodation on the facility's expenses, resources, or operations
  • Employer's overall size, nature, and resources
  • Type of operations impacted by the accommodation

The standards for reasonable accommodation and undue hardship have proven difficult for courts to identify and apply uniformly. Employers are only required to accommodate disabilities of which they are aware. This means an employee cannot bring an ADA claim for a condition that was unknown to the employer.

Additionally, sometimes the parties disagree on whether the employee's condition is a disability under the law. Deafness and quadriplegia are examples of disabilities but many conditions are harder to judge. Is a sore back a disability? What about poor eyesight?

What Accommodation is Required?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides "Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under The American with Disabilities Act". The EEOC also provides examples of what can be considered a reasonable accommodation and what might be an undue hardship.

The ADA does not specify who is supposed to take the initiative in accommodating the employee's disability. Employers may not know whether it's their duty (or the employee's duty) to propose changes that would allow the employee to perform the job. Some courts require an interactive process between the employer and the disabled individual, sometimes with the employer taking a more affirmative role.

Example of Employer Accommodations

For example, if a person in an office job needed help from another employee to lift items weighing over 25 pounds, requesting occasional help may be totally reasonable. However, an airport baggage handler who could not lift over 25 pounds would not likely be able to reasonably rely on the same help. In the latter instance, the lifting assistance would be performing a substantial portion of the individual's job.

In making a "reasonableness" determination, courts look at the essential functions of the job in questions. If the employee cannot perform the job's essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation, the employee is not qualified for the job. An employer does not discriminate by denying a job to a person who is not qualified to perform it.

Employer Inquiries and Exams

The ADA protects disabled individuals during the hiring process and prohibits employers from inquiring about disabilities or subjecting prospective employees to medical tests before hiring. However, employers may ask about a candidate's abilities concerning essential job functions. After making a job offer, the employer may require a medical examination, so long as the examination is given to all newly hired employees.

What is Your Employer's Duty to Accommodate? An Attorney Can Help

Disabled workers may have a lot of questions when dealing with employment discrimination. For example, which accommodations are reasonable, and which would create an undue hardship? If you believe that your rights may have been violated under the ADA, you may need legal help. Contact a local employment law attorney to learn more about your rights and obligations under the law.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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