Reasonable Accommodation Of An Employee's Disability - When Is The Employer Supposed To Act?

An employer's duty to offer reasonable accommodation to an employee with a known disability arises under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act as well as local and state laws prohibiting disability discrimination. Sometimes an employer's duty to explore the feasibility of accommodation is obvious. For example, when the employee's disability is obvious, when a disability is clearly affecting the employee's job performance, or when the employee requests an accommodation, the employer's obligation is triggered. But often, an employer's duty is unclear and may depend on the particular facts and circumstances of the situation. In addition, the requirements for employers may differ under federal and state law.

When is an employer's duty to engage in reasonable accommodation efforts triggered under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), as well as virtually every state law, an employer is only obligated to reasonably accommodate the known limitations of an otherwise qualified disabled employee. In other words, an employer is not normally required to provide accommodation if the employer is unaware of the need or disability. According to federal regulations and the EEOC's Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodations and Undue Hardship, an applicant or employee with a disability must inform the employer of his or her disability and the need for an accommodation in order to trigger the employer's duty to explore accommodation.

The applicant or employee does not have to use any particular words such as "reasonable accommodation" or "ADA." Instead, the employee just needs to use "plain English" to let the employer know that some adjustment or change is needed because of a medical condition. Additionally, a family member, friend, health professional, or other representative may request the accommodation on behalf of an individual with a disability. Moreover, the employee's request for an accommodation does not have to be in writing.

Under the ADA, the obligation to engage in reasonable accommodation efforts is continuing - at least as long as the individual remains employed. In a recent decision, the Ninth Circuit, which covers Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California, held that if one reasonable accommodation fails, an employer still has an ongoing duty to explore other accommodations, including accommodations the employee may have previously rejected. Humphrey v. Memorial Hospitals Ass'n. In that case, Humphrey was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, which directly contributed to her recurring tardiness and absenteeism. In June 1995, the employer and Humphrey discussed accommodations and agreed on a flexible...

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