Reasonable Accommodation

Source: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website for types of accommodations, www.askjan.org.  JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.

D.1.  If a job may only be performed at the workplace, are there reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities absent undue hardship that could offer protection to an employee who, due to a preexisting disability, is at higher risk from COVID-19?  (4/9/20)

There may be reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to an individual whose disability puts him at greater risk from COVID-19 and who therefore requests such actions to eliminate possible exposure.  Even with the constraints imposed by a pandemic, some accommodations may meet an employee’s needs on a temporary basis without causing undue hardship on the employer. 

Low-cost solutions achieved with materials already on hand or easily obtained may be effective.  If not already implemented for all employees, accommodations for those who request reduced contact with others due to a disability may include changes to the work environment such as designating one-way aisles; using plexiglass, tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible per CDC guidance or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure.

Flexibility by employers and employees is important in determining if some accommodation is possible in the circumstances. Temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment may also permit an individual with a disability to perform safely the essential functions of the job while reducing exposure to others in the workplace or while commuting. 

D.2.  If an employee has a preexisting mental illness or disorder that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may he now be entitled to a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship)? (4/9/20)

Although many people feel significant stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees with certain preexisting mental health conditions, for example, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, may have more difficulty handling the disruption to daily life that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As with any accommodation request, employers may: ask questions to determine whether the condition is a disability; discuss with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him to keep working; explore alternative accommodations that may effectively meet his needs; and request medical documentation if needed. 

D.3. In a workplace where all employees are required to telework during this time, should an employer postpone discussing a request from an employee with a disability for an accommodation that will not be needed until he returns to the workplace when mandatory telework ends? (4/9/20)

Not necessarily.  An employer may give higher priority to discussing requests for reasonable accommodations that are needed while teleworking, but the employer may begin discussing this request now.  The employer may be able to acquire all the information it needs to make a decision.  If a reasonable accommodation is granted, the employer also may be able to make some arrangements for the accommodation in advance.

D.4. What if an employee was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and now requests an additional or altered accommodation? (4/9/20)

An employee who was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic may be entitled to an additional or altered accommodation, absent undue hardship.  For example, an employee who is teleworking because of the pandemic may need a different type of accommodation than what he uses in the workplace.  The employer may discuss with the employee whether the same or a different disability is the basis for this new request and why an additional or altered accommodation is needed.

D.5.  During the pandemic, if an employee requests an accommodation for a medical condition either at home or in the workplace, may an employer still request information to determine if the condition is a disability? (4/17/20)

Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee has a “disability” as defined by the ADA (a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or a history of a substantially limiting impairment).

D.6.  During the pandemic, may an employer still engage in the interactive process and request information from an employee about why an accommodation is needed? (4/17/20)

Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee’s disability necessitates an accommodation, either the one he requested or any other. Possible questions for the employee may include: (1) how the disability creates a  limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his position (that is, the fundamental job duties). 

D.7.  If there is some urgency to providing an accommodation, or the employer has limited time available to discuss the request during the pandemic, may an employer provide a temporary accommodation? (4/17/20)

Yes.  Given the pandemic, some employers may choose to forgo or shorten the exchange of information between an employer and employee known as the “interactive process” (discussed in D.5 and D.6., above) and grant the request.  In addition, when government restrictions change, or are partially or fully lifted, the need for accommodations may also change.  This may result in more requests for short-term accommodations. Employers may wish to adapt the interactive process – and devise end dates for the accommodation – to suit changing circumstances based on public health directives.

Whatever the reason for shortening or adapting the interactive process, an employer may also choose to place an end date on the accommodation (for example, either a specific date such as May 30, or when the employee returns to the workplace part- or full-time due to changes in government restrictions limiting the number of people who may congregate). Employers may also opt to provide a requested accommodation on an interim or trial basis, with an end date, while awaiting receipt of medical documentation. Choosing one of these alternatives may be particularly helpful where the requested accommodation would provide protection that an employee may need because of a pre-existing disability that puts her at greater risk during this pandemic. This could also apply to employees who have disabilities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Employees may request an extension that an employer must consider, particularly if current government restrictions are extended or new ones adopted. 

D.8.  May an employer ask employees now if they will need reasonable accommodations in the future when they are permitted to return to the workplace? (4/17/20)

Yes.  Employers may ask employees with disabilities to request accommodations that they believe they may need when the workplace re-opens.  Employers may begin the “interactive process” – the discussion between the employer and employee focused on whether the impairment is a disability and the reasons that an accommodation is needed.

D.9.  Are the circumstances of the pandemic relevant to whether a requested accommodation can be denied because it poses an undue hardship? (4/17/20)

Yes.  An employer does not have to provide a particular reasonable accommodation if it poses an “undue hardship,” which means “significant difficulty or expense.” In some instances, an accommodation that would not have posed an undue hardship prior to the pandemic may pose one now.

D.10.  What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant difficulty” during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)

An employer may consider whether current circumstances create “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace.  For example, it may be significantly more difficult in this pandemic to conduct a needs assessment or to acquire certain items, and delivery may be impacted, particularly for employees who may be teleworking.  Or, it may be significantly more difficult to provide employees with temporary assignments, to remove marginal functions, or to readily hire temporary workers for specialized positions.  If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems. 

D.11.  What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant expense” during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most accommodations did not pose a significant expense when considered against an employer’s overall budget and resources (always considering the budget/resources of the entire entity and not just its components).  But, the sudden loss of some or all of an employer’s income stream because of this pandemic is a relevant consideration.  Also relevant is the amount of discretionary funds available at this time – when considering other expenses – and whether there is an expected date that current restrictions on an employer’s operations will be lifted (or new restrictions will be added or substituted).  These considerations do not mean that an employer can reject any accommodation that costs money; an employer must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget while taking into account constraints created by this pandemic.  For example, even under current circumstances, there may be many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations.

Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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