Providing Reasonable Accommodations to a Disabled Employee

The American Disabilities Act ("ADA") requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. Employers are legally required to engage in an interactive process with the disabled employee to identify potential accommodations that would remove barriers to the employee's performance of essential functions of the job. The interactive process involves 4 steps: establishment of essential duties, determination of barriers to the disabled employee's performance of those duties, identification of possible accommodations, and assessment of each potential accommodation.

  1. Establish Essential Duties. An employer must first establish which duties are essential to the employee's job. Under Government Code section 12926(f), essential functions are the fundamental, rather than marginal, job duties of a position. A job function may be considered essential for various reasons, including if the position exists to perform that function, if there are a limited number of employees available to perform the function, and if the function is highly specialized. Evidence of a function's essential nature includes the employer's judgment, written job descriptions, the amount of time spent performing the function, the consequences of not requiring the function to be performed, and the terms of a collective bargaining agreement if one exists.
  2. Determine Barriers to Performance. Once an employer has ascertained which job duties are essential to the disabled employee's position, the employer must next discuss with the employee what barriers prevent the employee from effectively performing those duties. Barriers may include aspects of the work environment, specific tasks, or physical barriers. In discussing these barriers to job performance, the employer must consider the disabled employee's specific abilities and limitations.
  3. Identify Possible Accommodations. An employer must address the barriers to the employee's performance by identifying possible accommodations that may alleviate those barriers. Employers are not required to offer every conceivable accommodation - for example, if an accommodation requires a violation of the employer's seniority system or collective bargaining agreement, that accommodation may not be considered reasonable absent special circumstances. Additionally, an employer does not need to implement an accommodation that would impose undue hardship on the employer. In the event of a claim against the employer for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, proof of undue hardship would serve as a defense.
  4. Assess Potential Accommodations. Having determined which reasonable accommodations are possible, the employer should assess how effective each potential accommodation would be in enabling the employee to perform the position's essential functions. The employer must consider the employee's preference as a part of this assessment; however, an employer may also consider whether there is another effective reasonable accommodation that would provide the employee with a meaningful equal employment opportunity.

Barnett v. U.S. Air, Inc. makes it clear that the interactive process is a mandatory obligation imposed on employers by the ADA. While Snapp v. United Transportation Union clarified that there is no stand-alone claim for failure to engage in the interactive process, the denial of an available and reasonable accommodation is discrimination under the ADA and will subject the employer to liability. Further, under Government Code section 12940, it is an unlawful employment practice "to fail to engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process with the employee" to determine reasonable accommodations in response to a request by the employee.

What triggers the employer's obligation to engage in the interactive process?

The employer's obligation to engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee is triggered by that employee (or a representative of that employee) giving notice of the employee's disability and indicating the desire for an accommodation. The request can be in plain English - it does not need to mention the ADA or specifically say "reasonable accommodation." Under EEOC Compliance Manual section 902, the employee may not need to make a request; instead, the employer's obligation to initiate the interactive process begins when the employer (a) knows of the disability, (b) knows or should know the employee is facing barriers because of the disability, and (c) knows or should know the disability is preventing the employee from requesting an accommodation.

Practical Tips for Providing Reasonable Accommodations:

  • Engage in the Process in Good Faith. Failure to engage in the interactive process in good faith exposes an employer to potential liability. Employers can demonstrate good faith by displaying cooperative behavior, such as: making it easy for employees to request accommodations, providing forms or a formal process for accommodation requests (although employers must respond to informal requests even where a formal process is in place), carving out time to follow the steps outlined above, responding promptly to accommodation requests, and training supervisors to avoid making employees feel that accommodation requests are unwelcome or overly burdensome.
  • Communicate Directly with the Employee. As in many areas of life, communication is key. Both employer and employee (or employee's representative) must communicate directly and provide information that is essential to the interactive process. Employers must be transparent about which job-related tasks are considered essential duties. Employees must provide medical information related to the disability if the employer requests this information. An employer may not impose an accommodation upon an employee without first discussing the proposed accommodation with the employee. Similarly, rejecting a proposed accommodation without offering an alternative may expose the employer to liability.
  • Do Not Delay the Process. Neither the employer nor the employee may delay or obstruct the interactive process. An employer who unnecessarily delays the process or otherwise creates roadblocks exposes itself to liability.

In short, engaging in the interactive process is the best way to protect and employer from potential liability related to disability discrimination of failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. If you want to learn more about ADA requirements, reasonable accommodations, or other measures employers can take to limit their exposure to liability for employment-related claims, contact our employment law attorneys.