If your business employs more than 15 workers (or fewer depending on the state you’re in), it is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This civil rights law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities not only on the job, but also in schools, on transportation, and in every public and private space that is open to the public. The ADA provides equal opportunity in areas such as employment, transportation, and state and local government services, to people with disabilities similar to the protections provided to people on the basis of their sex, age, religion, or race. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) greatly expanded the definition of “disability” and became law on January 1, 2009. Disabilities now include conditions previously not covered, such as bipolar disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, major depression, and multiple sclerosis.
Under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee or job candidate with a disability who asks for them.
Who is an “individual with a disability?”
According to ADA guidelines, an individual with a disability is someone who:
- has a mental or physical impairment that significantly limits at least one major life activity
- has a history of such an impairment
- is perceived to have such an impairment
The person’s impairment must significantly impede one or more major life activities for a disability to be covered by the ADA. These activities are ones that a person without a disability can do with little or no struggle, including:
- performing manual tasks
What are reasonable accommodations?
Reasonable accommodations are changes to a job application, hiring process, or the way a job is performed that enable a person with a disability—who is otherwise qualified for the job—to perform the essential functions of the role and benefit from equal employment. Accommodations are considered “reasonable” if they don’t create an unnecessary burden on the business.
Reasonable Accommodation Process
The EEOC and Title I of the ADA require companies to evaluate requests for reasonable accommodation on a case-by-case basis. The first step in the reasonable accommodation process is when an employee discloses that they have a disability; employers are not required to accommodate disabilities they are not made aware of. For example, an employer is not obligated to provide a closer parking space to an employee if they weren’t previously made aware of the need for accommodation.
Get the process started
The reasonable accommodation process begins when an employee informs their manager or HR of a disability at any time during their employment. An employee does not have to disclose a disability at the time of hire. It’s important to note that the employee also does not have to make the request in writing; a verbal request is all that’s needed to get the process started. However, an employer would be wise to document the request. It’s also important to note that the employee cannot simply say they have a disability without also requesting accommodation. They must state how the disability is preventing them from performing their job duties. Whether it’s verbal or written, a disability disclosure should never be ignored.
Begin a conversation with the employee
The goal of this discussion is to learn about the barriers the employee is experiencing and why they believe they need accommodation. The employer can share an overview of the accommodation request process to ensure the employee understands next steps. Everyone involved in the conversation must agree to keep shared information confidential when discussing accommodations. This information will never go in an employee’s file and should only be accessible to the employee’s manager and HR. Co-workers whose job duties or workspace may change because of the accommodation can be made aware of the modifications needed, but not the reasons for the change.
Get medical documentation if applicable
If the reason for the accommodation request isn’t obvious (for example, a mental health diagnosis), the employer can request medical certification from the employee’s healthcare provider. The employer cannot request medical documentation if the disability is obvious. As with the accommodation request, this information is to be kept confidential.
Reasonable accommodation next steps
If an accommodation request is approved, the employer and employee should make a plan to put it into effect, including any additional training for the employee or modifications for their fellow employees. If the employer plans to deny a request, they should have a prepared reason for the denial.
Document, document, document
All parties involved should document actions taken, dates, and adjustments made for the reasonable accommodation to maintain an accurate record in the event of a complaint or other legal action.
What are some examples of reasonable accommodation?
Here are five examples of what reasonable accommodations can look like:
- Alternate Format: A manager provides feedback verbally instead of a written performance review for an employee who has a visual impairment.
- Accessible Parking: A business that previously only allowed executives to park in spots on the first two rows changes its policy to allow an employee who has some trouble walking long distances access to a parking spot closer to the office.
- Service Animals: A business amends their company’s “zero-tolerance of office animals” policy to accommodate an employee’s service dog. Note that emotional support animals are not protected under the ADA.
- Job Reorganization: An employer creates a comprehensive checklist for an employee with an intellectual disability to help ensure daily tasks are completed.
- Reassignment: If an employee can no longer perform the essential functions of their current job, the employer can move them to another open position within the company. Note that the employer is not obligated to create a new role for the employee, nor are other employees required to transfer or be laid off to accommodate for a reassignment position. The employee with a disability must also be qualified for the new role.
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