The EEOC’s Guidelines on an Employer’s Duty to Provide Reasonable Accommodation

Stock photo of gavelUnder Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), individuals with disabilities are entitled to changes in the work environment, also known as “reasonable accommodations,” that allow them to enjoy the same opportunities in the workplace as individuals without disabilities.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has issued enforcement guidance on reasonable accommodations under the ADA in order to address the rights and responsibilities of employers and individuals with disabilities regarding reasonable accommodations.  Highlights from the guide are set forth below. 

Employers are under a statutory duty to provide a reasonable accommodation in order to remove barriers that could prevent individuals with disabilities from performing jobs they might otherwise be able to do. These barriers might be physical or procedural.  However, an employer does not have to provide personal use items that an employee needs both on and off the job as a reasonable accommodation.  Examples of this include wheelchairs and hearing aids.   

Employers must provide accommodations whether employees with disabilities work part-time, or are considered probationary.  

There are three types of reasonable accommodations under the ADA: 

  1. Modifications to the job application process that allow qualified applicants with disabilities to be considered for a position; 
  1. Adjustments to the workplace or environment that allows an individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a position; and 
  1. Modifications that permit an employee to enjoy the same benefits and privileges of employment as individuals without disabilities.  

Examples of accommodations could include making facilities accessible; restructuring jobs; modifying schedules, work equipment or policies; or reassigning an employee to a vacant position. The important consideration is that the accommodation enables the individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job.  

An employer is excused from providing a reasonable accommodation only if it can demonstrate that such a change would cause “undue hardship.”  Undue hardship is generally characterized by excessive expense or significant difficulty or disruption to the employer.  This must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.   

When asking for a reasonable accommodation, an employee must inform his or her employer about the need for an adjustment or change to the workplace and state that it is due to a medical condition. Simply requesting a new chair because it is “not comfortable” would not constitute a request for a reasonable accommodation; instead, the employee would need to link the need for a new chair to a medical condition, such as chronic back pain.  These requests can either be oral or written. 

Another individual, such as a family member or healthcare practitioner, can also request an accommodation on behalf of an employee with a disability.   

After a request for an accommodation is made, an employer is then entitled to ask questions and explore solutions.  Under the ADA, the employer can ask about the nature of the disability and functional limitations in order to survey and identify an effective accommodation.  While not required to, the employer has the option of requiring documentation that its employee has an ADA disability, and that the disability necessitates an accommodation.  However, the scope of an employer’s inquiries is limited to this, and cannot, for example, require providing complete medical records.  An employer can also ask a worker requesting an accommodation to sign a limited release allowing the employer to submit a list of specific questions to a medical provider. 

The employee can obtain the requested information from his or her health professional of choice.  However, if that healthcare provider is unable to substantiate the existence of an ADA disability and to verify the need for an accommodation, the employer should first state that the information is insufficient and allow the employee to obtain a compliant note. If this fails, the employer can thereafter ask the employee to submit to a medical examination conducted by the employer’s health professional, but the examination is limited to establishing the existence of the disability and the functional limitations that would require reasonable accommodations. The employer would also have to pay any exam it orders from a provider it designates.  

Employers are prohibited from requesting any documentation if the employee’s disability and need for an accommodation is obvious or 2) the individual has provided sufficient information to demonstrate that he or she has an ADA disability and requires a reasonable accommodation.  

Some employers do not require medical notes.  In this situation, the employee should be able to describe what situations or problems are creating barriers.  Discussing and exploring potential reasonable accommodations is referred to as “engaging in the interactive process.”  During this process, the employer has the prerogative of choosing the accommodation, as long as it is effective.   

Once an employee requests an accommodation, the employer must respond expeditiously.  Ignoring a request, and unnecessarily delaying a response may result in a violation of the ADA.  If the employee needs a reasonable accommodation to perform an essential function and the employee refuses an effective accommodation, he or she may not be qualified to stay in the job.