Sometimes, immediate supervisors want to be helpful when a valued employee asks for disability accommodations that seem reasonable. Instead of having HR handle the ADA process, they just make the accommodations themselves. They never tell upper-level managers or HR about the situation. Crucially, they may fail to ask the employee for medical documentation. That’s a scenario for trouble down the line.
Consider this: If the company later seeks to withdraw the accommodations, wants disability proof or tries to argue that the accommodations mean the employee can’t perform the essential functions of her job, it is largely stuck.
After all, if the supervisor has allowed the accommodations and the employee is performing well, then the accommodations must be reasonable and effective, right?
Recent case: Paula Pagonakis began working for an Express store as a part-time employee. Pagonakis had been in an earlier automobile accident and suffered a head injury. She also claimed she couldn’t drive in bad weather and suffered from fibromyalgia pain.
Pagonakis asked her immediate supervisor for accommodations and gave her a letter from her treating physician that recommended regular breaks, a schedule with no more than three or four days in a row without a day off, no night shifts and occasional opportunities to work from home when she missed work due to bad weather. The letter didn’t include any medical specifics.
The supervisor OK’d the accommodations without letting HR know. Then the same supervisor promoted Pagonakis to full-time . She continued the accommodations and soon considered Pagonakis a valuable member of the team.
Several months later, HR learned about the accommodations and explained to the manager that none could be approved unless the employee could document that she was disabled under the ADA.
HR rescinded the accommodations and argued that they interfered with Pagonakis’ ability to perform the essential functions of her job as a manager.
Pagonakis sued. She argued that since she already had been accommodated and was working successfully, she obviously was able to perform her job with those accommodations.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case to the trial court for a jury trial. (Pagonakis v. Express LLC, No. 08-1753, 3rd Cir., 2009)
Advice: Don’t let lower-level supervisors informally manage ADA accommodations. Instead, require them to immediately send all accommodation requests to HR. Then act fast to decide whether the employee is disabled. (It’s fine to start the interactive accommodations process while gathering the disability information.)
The main reason you don’t want floor supervisors making accommodations is that they may find ways to accommodate that aren’t in the company’s best interest. The accommodations may go too far or disrupt the workplace more than the law requires.
Plus, the employee may not actually be disabled. Don’t leave that decision to the supervisor. Someone with expertise—such as a member of the HR staff—should make that call.
Final note: Beware of violations of privacy laws. Floor supervisors who do ask for ADA documentation probably don’t know how to securely store that information.
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