Employers are required, in certain circumstances, to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified employees and job applicants with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to enable disabled people to perform the essential functions of a job for which they are applying or in which they are working. That must be done unless it would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
Generally, an employer is obligated to make a reasonable accommodation under the ADA only for an employee’s or applicants’ known or obvious disability. The ADA places the initial burden on the worker to inform his employer of a need for an accommodation for his disability. The worker is required only to suggest the existence of a plausible accommodation, the costs of which don’t clearly exceed its benefits.
A reasonable accommodation must be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it will be effective and whether it will constitute an undue hardship on the employer. Employers should start the accommodation process by discussing it with the disabled worker.
Accommodations can range from making existing facilities accessible, job restructuring, acquiring or modifying existing equipment, or reassigning to a vacant position. The employee with a disability must be provided with the tools and environment to enable him to accomplish the job.
Basic responsibilities of employees and job applicants with disabilities
An individual may use “plain English” and need not mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation” when requesting an accommodation. That doesn’t mean, however, that an employer is required to provide the change, it is merely a first step.
Employer response to a request for reasonable accommodation
After receiving a request for a reasonable accommodation, the employer and the individual should engage in an informal process to clarify what he needs and to identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation.
Generally, an employer must not ask whether a reasonable accommodation is needed when an employee has not asked for one. An employer should initiate the reasonable accommodation interactive process, however, without being asked to if it: (1) knows the employee has a disability, (2) knows or has reason to know that the employee experiences workplace problems because of the disability, and (3) knows, or has reason to know, that the disability prevents the employee from requesting a reasonable accommodation.
An employer may refuse to grant an accommodation to an employee or applicant if the requested accommodation isn’t reasonable or would cause an undue hardship on its business. Undue hardship refers not only to financial difficulty, but also to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive or disruptive or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. Note: If an employer wants to claim undue hardship they must be prepared to show proof that it was truly an “undue hardship!”
NOTE: California employers have stricter guidelines under the Fair Employment & Housing Act (FEHA). Under FEHA the employer must engage in an active discussion regarding a reasonable accommodation if the employer even “perceives” an employee to have a disability.