The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. But how much accommodation is enough? When does an accommodation become unreasonable? How reasonable is reasonable?
Reasonable Accommodations Defined
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), reasonable accommodations are any effective changes or adjustments to a job or work environment that allow a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job.
Reasonable accommodations are typically used for applicants to participate in the recruiting and selection process or to permit employees to remain employed when they have a disability that prevents them from being able to perform one of more of the essential functions of the job.
Any employer with 15 or more employees is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities.
How Much is Enough?
There is no steadfast rule for determining what is reasonable, and all cases involving reasonable accommodations must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Generally, though, the test for whether an accommodation is unreasonable is if it would cause an undue hardship, basically if it's too unduly costly, large, or disruptive to the business. In addition, any accommodation that would harmfully alter the nature or operation of the business would be an undue hardship. When determining if an accommodation is an undue hardship, employers should consider:
- Nature and structure of the organization
- Size of the organization
- Organization's finances
- Nature and cost of the accommodation
- Impact of the accommodation on operations, other employees, and the ability to do business
According to the EEOC, if an accommodation poses undue hardship, the organization must identify another accommodation that will not pose hardship, try to pursue any funding available from outside sources such as a state or rehabilitation agency, or allow the employee to pay for part of the accommodation (if it presents hardship) (Source: Job Accommodation Network). An employer must assess on a case-by-case basis whether a particular reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship.
When more than one accommodation is identified, employers have a choice in the accommodation they select. Organizations may choose accommodations that are less expensive or easier to obtain, so long as the accommodation meets the employee's needs and adequately allows them to perform the essential functions of the job.
Employers must make a good faith effort to engage in the process of deciding on reasonable accommodations. This requires an interactive dialogue with the employee to discuss options. Organizations must prove that a reasonable accommodation is not possible or that it would impose undue hardship if they choose not to make an accommodation for an employee in need of one.
It should be noted that leave is an especially questionable issue when it comes to how reasonable an accommodation is, especially when FMLA and ADA leaves intersect. The courts have said that an indefinite leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation, but the EEOC is unclear about how much time is reasonable and has not provided guidance on how many extensions of leave should be offered. It's generally a good practice to ask employees how long the leave needs to be extended past any allotted FMLA leave, and then make an accommodation of extended leave up to a predefined tolerable limit.
The following white paper provides a good overview of undue hardship as well as the issue of extending leave.
According to the Experts
Additionally, we had experts at The Job Accommodation Network as well as Attorney Meg Matejkovic, who frequently facilitates ERC’s training programs related to employment law, weigh in on the question of “what’s reasonable.”
"A modification or adjustment is 'reasonable' if it 'seems reasonable on its face, i.e., ordinarily or in the run of cases;' this means it is 'reasonable' if it appears to be 'feasible' or 'plausible.' An accommodation also must be effective in meeting the needs of the individual. In the context of job performance, this means that a reasonable accommodation enables the individual to perform the essential functions of the position," says The Job Accommodation Network (JAN).
Meg Matejkovic adds, “Requests for accommodations under the ADA can present some of the most unique employee relations challenges for employers. An employer always should ensure that it fully understands the needs of the employee requesting the accommodation as well as the specific nature of the accommodation requested. Frequently, employers rush to judgment to either end of the ADA accommodation spectrum … either by automatically accepting or by immediately denying the accommodation proposed by the employee. Often what is really needed is continued conversation about this employee’s particular circumstance and how the employer may offer accommodation. These conversations are crucial even in those cases where the employee’s accommodation request as initially presented is ultimately accepted or denied. The case-specific nature as to whether such requests are ultimately “reasonable” cannot be overemphasized and, as such, reasonableness under the ADA cannot be determined by some single rule or definition.”
Examples of Reasonable Accommodations
Reasonable accommodations can take many forms. Here are some common examples:
- Restructuring a job, such as by removing a non-essential function
- Reassigning to another job
- Modifying a work schedule/allowing work-from-home
- Allowing part-time work
- Providing unpaid leave or extending leave
- Changing or acquiring equipment
- Providing materials or supplies in an alternative format
- Providing interpreters
- Changing method of supervision
- Making facilities accessible
When making accommodations, employers should consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). In addition to consulting with employers on accommodations and making appropriate recommendations, JAN provides a searchable online accommodation resource where employers can learn more about disabilities and practical ways to accommodate them.
Please note that by providing you with research information that may be contained in this article, ERC is not providing a qualified legal opinion. As such, research information that ERC provides to its members should not be relied upon or considered a substitute for legal advice. The information that we provide is for general employer use and not necessarily for individual application.
Practical Guide to Reasonable Accommodation Under ADA
This publication provides guidance on making accommodations to employees with disabilities, particularly as it relates to accommodation requests, determining effective accommodations, and accommodation issues.
ERC offers legal and compliance training which provides an overview of the provisions of ADA including employer coverage, employee eligibility, what triggers protection, continuous and intermittent leave requests, and benefits issues. Participants review the practical application of effective responses and management of employee requests.