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What does a “reasonable accommodation” really mean?

On Behalf of | Sep 11, 2023 | Employer Defense, Unfair Labor Practice Defense

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), California workers who suffer from physical or mental disabilities can request that their employers grant them “reasonable accommodations” if they need them to perform their jobs. However, the question of what exactly a reasonable accommodation is not as clear-cut as you might think.

Requesting accommodations

The ADA states that for an employee to ask their employer for a reasonable accommodation, they must meet the definition of having a physical or mental impairment that hinders one or more major life activities.

In addition, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Disabled Persons Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) provide additional protections for disabled individuals. While these laws aim to help individuals, the extensive information can create confusion as to what exactly a “reasonable accommodation” is.

Reasonable accommodations

The definition of a reasonable accommodation is a slight change made to the duties of a particular position or role or where, how and with what it is performed.

The goal of reasonable accommodation is to provide reasonable tools for qualified, disabled employees who need them to do their jobs. These individuals could only do their jobs with these accommodations.

Undue hardship

While the ADA and other California laws aim to protect employees from discrimination in the workplace, it is important to understand that businesses must produce and function.

For this reason, the requested accommodation must be within reason, and it cannot place undue hardship on the business or employer.

What is reasonable?

What one employer considers “reasonable” can easily be an undue hardship for another, depending on the business, the job the disabled individual was hired to do and how the request impacts both the job and the business.

Examples of reasonable accommodations

While these can vary, examples of reasonable accommodations are:

  • Medical leave, either intermittent or continuous
  • Modified work schedule
  • Modified workspace

Of course, the above cannot cause an undue hardship on the employer. This complicates matters because these determinations and decisions depend on the business and the specific job.

Requirement of disability qualification

In addition, the employee must “qualify” as a disabled individual, which has its own definition. Keep in mind that these qualifications can have an impact on other parts of the employee’s life. The employee will face additional hurdles.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that an employee cannot be disabled enough to be unable to perform a certain type of job, for example, an office job, while at the same time being able to perform activities outside of work that would disqualify them from disability benefits.

In other words, if they cannot stand up for extended periods of time without assistance and their disability is based on that, but outside of work, they stand up fine for extended periods, it could pose a significant problem for the employee.

Because it may be difficult to determine if a person meets the criteria for disability or what accommodations might be required under state and federal law, seeking professional guidance is always a prudent step in the process and an essential employer safeguard.