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The Employer's Duty To Accommodate Under the ADA

Every American should have the same rights when it comes to employment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable accommodations so that workers with disabilities can secure and retain employment. It also ensures that disabled job applicants are protected during the application process.

The ADA has raised the consciousness of U.S. employers while reducing discrimination against people with disabilities. The employer's duty to comply with the ADA also ensures a more inclusive work environment. Overall, the ADA has positively affected the workforce.

What Is Considered a Disability?

The ADA defines an individual with a disability as a person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Has a history or record of such an impairment
  • Is perceived by others as having such an impairment

Under the ADA, employers must keep confidential medical information about a disability-related inquiry or medical examination. This includes medical information from voluntary health or wellness programs and any medical information voluntarily disclosed by an employee.

The ADA may protect an individual with an injury covered under workers' compensation. However, such an individual is not automatically protected. The employee must otherwise meet the definition of disability.

What Is Reasonable Accommodation?

The ADA allows disabled workers to perform job duties with reasonable accommodations. However, the ADA's language regarding the type of accommodation an employer must make is not precise.

There are different interpretations regarding what constitutes effective accommodation in the accommodation process. Thus, many job-related accommodation disputes appear before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a court.

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating conduct based on an employee's disability. Employers must not:

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

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

An employer's obligation includes making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability. The ADA provides an exception for accommodations if it would cause undue hardship to the employer's business.

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 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 EEOC provides "Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under The Americans with Disabilities Act." The EEOC also provides examples of what can be considered a reasonable accommodation and what might be an undue hardship.

According to the Department of Labor, under Title I, the ADA requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide qualified employees with reasonable accommodations. It relates to three aspects of employment:

  • Ensuring equal opportunity in the application process, including the job description
  • Enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform essential functions of a job to the same extent as co-workers without disabilities
  • Making it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment

Many examples of reasonable accommodations can benefit employees, not just those with disabilities.

Examples of Employer Accommodations

The ADA does not specify who is supposed to take the initiative in accommodating the employee's disability. Employers may need to find out whether it's their duty or the employee's duty. Some courts require an interactive process between the employer and the disabled individual, sometimes with the employer taking a more affirmative role.

Determining whether an accommodation is reasonable must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The Job Accommodation Network, a U.S. Department of Labor service, is the leading source for guidance on workplace accommodations. It provides one-on-one consultations to both employers and employees free of charge.

Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Job restructuring
  • Part-time work assignments
  • Job Reassignment to a vacant position
  • Modified work schedules
  • Implementing a requested accommodation required for a medical condition
  • Specialized equipment
  • Modifications to the work environment

An employee with low vision may need someone to read training materials, while a deaf or hard-of-hearing job applicant may need a sign language interpreter during the job interview.

An office worker may require assistance from another employee to lift items weighing over 25 pounds. In such a case, requesting occasional help is reasonable. On the other hand, an airport baggage handler who could not lift over 25 pounds would not likely be able to rely on the same help. In the latter instance, the lifting assistance would constitute a substantial portion of the individual's job.

In making a "reasonableness" determination, courts look at the essential functions of the job in question. If the employee cannot perform the job's essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation, the employee is not qualified for the job.

Limits To Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA limits an employer's duty to provide reasonable accommodations when it would cause an undue hardship. An employee is not required to honor all employee requests in the name of ADA compliance. However, a covered employer must make a good-faith effort to offer reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee with a disability.

Employer Inquiries and Exams

The ADA protects disabled individuals during hiring 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, but all newly hired employees must receive the examination as well.

Under the ADA, if a test or other selection criterion excludes an individual with a disability because of the disability and does not relate to essential job functions, it is not consistent with business necessity. An employer does not discriminate by denying a job to someone not qualified to perform it.

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 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.

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