By Jeff Jones
Special to the UCBJ
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires covered employers (those with 15 or more employees) to make reasonable accommodations for employees needing them, unless it would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business operations. How does an employer know when a request for reasonable accommodation has been made?
An employer’s duty to engage in the interactive accommodation process under the ADA is triggered when a request for reasonable accommodation is communicated by the employee to the employer. Another situation is when an employer has reason to believe that an employee may need an accommodation due to a known disability that is affecting his/her job performance or attendance.
Generally, the responsibility to request an accommodation is with the employee. But, because the ADA doesn’t require that reasonable accommodation be requested in a formal way, it can be difficult for an employer to recognize a request and to engage in the interactive process.
A request for accommodation doesn’t always come in the ideal form of a letter from an employee or his/her doctor that identifies the employee’s disability and specific need for accommodation. More likely, the need for accommodation is alluded to when an employee shares a note from a doctor that excuses an employee’s absence for a medical reason, or places a restriction on his/her ability to perform certain job tasks. In many situations, there is no direct communication that an accommodation under the ADA is needed. This is why it’s important for managers and HR staff to be trained to recognize possible accommodation situations.
When an employee tells a manager or HR that a change is needed at work due to a medical reason, this is likely a request for accommodation under the ADA. Here are some examples:
- An employee arrives to work late several times in the past month. When he is counseled about attendance, he says, “I’m having trouble getting to work on-time because of the side effects of a new medication I’m taking that my doctor prescribed.”
- A long-term employee who was recently diagnosed with cancer submits a note from her healthcare provider indicating the need for a leave of absence or part-time schedule to receive chemotherapy treatments.
Situations like these can be deemed requests for accommodation under the ADA, and will trigger the interactive process.
It’s not always that obvious, of course. Employers that are not sure whether an employee has requested an accommodation can ask the employee to clarify what is being requested and why. This allows the employee to explain in greater detail what they need.
There may also be situations in which an employer has reason to believe that an accommodation may be needed because of an employee’s known impairment, but the employee hasn’t asked for any assistance. Rather than asking the employee directly if they need an accommodation, or have a health problem that is affecting their job performance, another way to address the subject is to tell the employee that it’s been noticed that they are having issues with X and “Is there something we can do to help?”
This question is not a medical inquiry under the ADA, whose use is regulated and limited. A medical question can be asked when there are valid concerns about an employee’s fitness to do the job. Asking in general terms if an employee needs help is also less likely to offend or scare an employee dealing with a health problem than a direct question about them needing an accommodation.