THE LAW. The Americans with Dis-abilities Act (ADA) says employers can't discriminate against employees who have physical or mental disabilities, and you must help them perform the critical functions of their jobs. The law requires you to discuss with employees how to "reasonably accommodate" their disabilities. But your accommodations only have to go so far; they're not meant to put you out of business. You're not required to adjust a job if you can show that the change would fundamentally alter the "essential functions" of the job.
WHAT'S NEW. Increasingly, courts are ruling that employers don't have to accommodate an employee for a particular job if the employee can perform other similar jobs without accommodation. The reason: Many disabilities don't limit an employee's ability to work, only his or her ability to perform a particular job.
HOW TO COMPLY. Reasonable ac-commodations are adjustments to jobs, employment practices or work environments that enable qualified disabled employees to perform their duties successfully. An accommodation is considered "unreasonable" if it's too difficult or too expensive for your organization to provide.
Whether an accommodation request is reasonable or unreasonable depends largely on the company's size and resources, as well as the nature of the accommodation. Two important concepts to understand are "proportionality" and "undue hardship," both of which serve to limit the scope of accommodation.
Proportionality. The ADA doesn't require you to make every inch of your workplace accessible and comfortable for employees with disabilities. You need to take only the steps necessary to let disabled employees perform the core tasks of their jobs.
Undue hardship. The burden of proof is on you to show that an accommodation is too costly, too difficult or too disruptive. Undue hardship is typically decided on a case-by-case basis. Use these guidelines to evaluate whether an accommodation would fall into that category:
- The nature and net cost of the accommodation.
- Financial factors and resources. Take into account your financial resources, number of employees and the long-term financial impact of the accommodation.
- The type of operation. This includes the work force's structure and the geographic and fiscal relationship to the parent company.
- The impact of the accommodation. How would the accommodation affect others' job performance and your ability to conduct business? If you can show the requested accommodation would be unduly disruptive to co-workers or to your ability to do business, you may have a legit undue-hardship defense.
The interactive process
The ADA requires you to engage in an "interactive process" with disabled employees to arrive at a reasonable accommodation. The process is a two-way street.
Employees must tell you of their qualifying condition and need for accommodation. Here's how to figure out what kind of accommodation may be possible:
Determine what essential job functions are affected. Define the core functions of the job (see the job description), and ask the employee if he or she can continue to perform those duties.
Verify the extent and nature of the disability. Don't rely on the employee's or your own opinions. Request certification from the employee's physician to support the diagnosis and verify the type of accommodation.
Determine how long recovery will take. If an employee is likely to return to full capacity quickly, there's no legal need to change work procedures.
- ADA: The Limits of Accommodation, free report from You & the Law, available at www.hrspecialist.net/ada.
- Job Accommodation Network, www.jan.wvu.edu/portals/private_er. htm, offers guidance and resources on accommodations.
EEOC Web site, offers ADA guidance and policy at www.eeoc.gov/types/ada.html.
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