Even if they decide they can’t accommodate a disabled worker, California employers must engage in an interactive accommodations process. Ignoring a request for accommodations may give the employee grounds for a lawsuit, even if it turns out that an accommodation wasn’t required.
Recent case: Gwen worked as an adult education instructor for the Oakland Unified School District. Before she was hired, she had been shot in the head during a robbery.
Although she recovered well enough to be hired and taught successfully for several years, she did have lingering medical problems. For example, she suffered from migraine headaches, neck and shoulder pain and degenerative disk disease. She claimed all these problems were made worse by constantly having to bend while teaching computer classes for more than three hours per day.
Gwen requested a series of reasonable accommodations, including ergonomic furniture, proper lighting and ventilation and a modified schedule so that she did not have to bend over for long periods of time. She also requested time off to deal with her medical problems as another accommodation. The district allegedly ignored her.
Gwen sued, alleging failure to engage in the interactive accommodations process.
The court agreed her case should proceed. Now Gwen will have the opportunity to prove her requests were ignored even though the school district was aware of her claimed disabilities. (Bikis v. Oakland Unified School District, No. A142456, Court of Appeal of California, 2017)
Final note: It is crucial for employers to engage with employees or applicants who request disability accommodations. Ignoring the request won’t make it go away. Set up a process that includes a timeline for responding to requests. Meet with the individual to discuss potential accommodations while you are determining whether the employee is disabled. Then make a prompt decision.