What do employers need to know about accommodation compliance under the ADA regulations?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, unless such provision would cause an "undue hardship." Under the ADA regulations, reasonable accommodation is "any change in the work environment or in the way a job is performed that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities," according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

For example, reasonable accommodations may include job restructuring, modified work schedules, flexible leave policies, acquiring or modifying equipment or devices or making the physical workplace readily accessible. If an eligible employer fails to provide proper accommodations, it can face significant civil monetary penalties. What do employers need to know about accommodation compliance under the ADA regulations?

Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation

According to the EEOC, an individual must let an employer know that they need accommodation at work related to a disability. The request may be submitted to the employer either orally or in writing, although writing isn't required. Still, it's prudent for an employer to memorialize the request in writing for its records. The employee's request doesn't need to refer to the ADA or use the words "reasonable accommodation." Further, the request for the accommodation begins as soon as the employee makes such request.

What to Do When Receiving a Request

You must respond promptly to an employee's request, and begin by discussing with the employee, and the employee's managers or supervisors, to clarify their job responsibilities and the specifics about the accommodation request. You may want to designate one person or office to handle such requests, then train managers and supervisors to report to that person upon receiving a request.

The employer may implement one of several available reasonable accommodations as long as the accommodation is considered "effective," as set forth in the ADA. The accommodation is effective if it "removes the workplace barrier for the disabled individual," according to the EEOC. For example, if more than one accommodation is effective, the employer may implement the least expensive or easiest option.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

You may consider several options as a reasonable accommodation, such as:

  • Physical changes to workplace — for example, installing a ramp, creating a fragrance-free environment or installing automatic door openers
  • Modified schedules — allowing flexible leave time and modified attendance policies for those who need to receive medical treatment or go to doctor's appointments during the workday
  • Amendments to a workplace policies — allowing a service animal or adjusting work schedules for doctor appointments or alternate work times
  • Modified workstations — providing ergonomic workstations and arm supports, eliminating fluorescent lighting

What Are Not Reasonable Accommodations?

The following are not considered reasonable accommodations and thus don't have to be implemented:

  • Eliminating a fundamental job duty (i.e., the employee must be qualified for the job)
  • Providing personal items, such as wheelchairs, hearing aids or similar devices, if such items are needed at home as well
  • Excusing a violation of a conduct rule, for example, threats of violence, stealing or destruction of property

Undue Hardship: What It Means for Your Organization

An organization doesn't have to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so causes an "undue hardship," meaning "significant difficulty or expense to the employer." While undue hardship refers to finances, it also refers to accommodations that are "unduly extensive or disruptive, or to those that would fundamentally alter the operation of the business," according to the EEOC. If cost is the concern, the employer should consider if outside funding, tax credits or tax deductions are available. Additionally, you may ask the employee if they'd be willing to contribute to the cost.

Employers must pay careful attention to disability request, respond promptly and prudently approach whether an accommodation will be provided or not under the terms of the law. Failure to comply with the ADA could subject the employer to significant civil penalties by the DOL, and potential federal litigation. Proactive compliance is a more prudent route for not only employee satisfaction, but bottom line protection.

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