California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) requires employers whose disabled employees ask for accommodations to “engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process with the employee … to determine effective reasonable accommodations.”
Employers don’t have to provide exactly the accommodation the employee may prefer, but coming to an agreement that includes all or most of those preferences is likely to win any failure-to-accommodate lawsuit an employee might file.
The key is to act promptly. Don’t delay beginning the interactive process. Start discussions as soon as the employee makes the request. Such an approach will probably win most court challenges.
Recent case: Julie Anne Wilson is a radio dispatcher for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. She has a rare blood disease, and her doctors told her she needed to avoid high-stress situations or she would risk a heart attack.
Radio dispatchers work one of several phone lines, of which the “Red Channel” is typically the most stressful. Wilson asked to be excused from handling the Red Channel as a reasonable accommodation. Discussions with HR about accommodations resulted in an agreement that allowed Wilson to work no more than five consecutive days, no more than 10 hours a day, no graveyard shifts and no alternating shifts. The department also agreed she would not have to work the Red Channel.
Wilson still sued the county under the FEHA, contending it had to reasonably accommodate her medical condition.
Although the county accommodated Wilson in precisely the manner she sought, she contended it nonetheless violated the FEHA by not providing her the accommodation earlier and by not initiating an “interactive process” sooner to determine whether she could be accommodated.
The Court of Appeal of California said the county had done all it was required to do under the FEHA. It dismissed Wilson’s case. (Wilson v. Orange County, No.G039733, Court of Appeal of California, 2008)
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