Job Descriptions and the ADA: Are Those ‘Essential Functions’ Really Essential?

So you have written job descriptions that list essential functions of the job. That’s smart because the EEOC says disabled employees “must also be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job (with our without a reasonable accommodation) in order to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” But what counts as an essential function? As this case shows, your opinion may differ from a court’s … 

Case in Point: Sarah Alastra, a part-time teller at a Michigan bank, accumulated 10 absences in one year. She had epilepsy and asked the bank to accommodate her disability by giving her a later start time. Alastra said this would allow her to sleep longer, which would help prevent seizures and the need for days off work.

The bank’s responded by terminating Alastra, saying that because she couldn’t perform the job’s essential functions, she didn’t qualify for ADA protection and, thus, the bank didn’t have to accommodate her. The bank said the teller job’s essential functions included: 1) Work on a consistent basis, meaning less than 10 absences per year; and 2) Fill in for absent full-time tellers whose shifts began before 9:00 a.m.

Alastra filed an ADA lawsuit, arguing that the bank was playing games with its definition of a teller’s “essential functions.” Alastra said at least one other non-disabled bank teller incurred 10 absences in a year, yet wasn’t terminated.

The result? Last month, the court rejected the bank’s summary judgment bid and let Alastra take her case to a jury trial. It said the bank failed to establish that the 10-absences rule or an ability to work morning shifts were truly “essential functions” for part-time tellers.

Hiring for Attitude D

While those may be typical functions for part-time tellers, the court said, the bank didn’t prove that they were “essential.” It noted that the bank’s employee handbook gave managers discretion in how to handle workers who reached 10 absences—it didn’t call for automatic termination. (Alastra v. Nat’l City Corp., E.D. Mich., No., 11/16/10)

3 Lessons Learned …Without Going to Court

1. Review all job descriptions to determine if the essential functions listed are truly essential for the position.

2. Consider all requests for accommodations for disabilities. The courts are not sympathetic to cold hearts.

3. Never discipline employees who need time off for a disability. In this case, the employer disciplined the employee right after a seizure and the court noted it as a discriminatory act.

Note: For more advice on handling accommodation requestions, see these EEOC fact sheets:

The ADA: Questions & Answers on Employment
The ADA: Your Responsibilities as an Employer

What Counts as an ‘Essential Function’ Under the ADA?

Essential functions are the basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation. You should carefully examine each job to determine which functions or tasks are essential to performance. (This is particularly important before taking an employment action such as recruiting, advertising, hiring, promoting or firing).

Factors to consider in determining if a function is essential include:

  • Whether the reason the position exists is to perform that function,
  • The number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the performance of the function can be distributed, and
  • The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.

Your judgment as to which functions are essential, and a written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job will be considered by EEOC as evidence of essential functions. Other kinds of evidence that EEOC will consider include:

  • The actual work experience of present or past employees in the job,
  • The time spent performing a function,
  • The consequences of not requiring that an employee perform a function, and
  • The terms of a collective bargaining agreement.
Source: EEOC’s The ADA: Your Responsibilities as an Employer