Under certain laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Washington State disability laws, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees with a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer. Washington State also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with a pregnancy-related condition. This may sound scary or like one more requirement being put on employers whose budgets are already stretched thin and margins shrinking. But consider the situation this way: Instead of worrying about the cost and hassle involved in providing a reasonable accommodation to a qualified applicant or employee, think of how you can possibly make changes that allow this qualified person to not only continue to work, but possibly be even more productive than they were before the accommodation. Not to mention, you are not incurring the excessive costs of recruiting, hiring, and training an unknown new hire to replace this otherwise qualified person. Providing reasonable accommodations doesn’t sound that costly to the company anymore, does it?
So, an employee comes to you and asks for an accommodation. What should you do? Give them what they asked for? Do you ask for documentation to support the request? How long do you have to consider their request? Let’s outline the process should follow to:
First Step: Get the Request in Writing
Documenting at each step of the process will help to ensure consistency, references to compare other requests to, and provide the evidence you need to defend that you followed the process. We recommend having a consistent form for employees to use when requesting an accommodation. At JB Consulting Systems, we have developed a packet, called a Reasonable Accommodation Toolkit, that not only provides information to the employee regarding the process, but also a compliant form they can complete and have their healthcare provider complete, if applicable, such as in requests that are related to a disability or pregnancy-related condition. Ultimately, you need information that includes:
- Why they are requesting the accommodation (disability, religious beliefs, pregnancy, etc.)
- Details or a description of what their limitations are
- What accommodation(s) they specifically requesting
- How long are they requesting the accommodation for (permanent, temporary and if temporary, how long do they need it)?
Second Step: Engage in the Interactive Process
After receiving the written request for an accommodation, you are required to engage with the employee in the interactive process. What’s that you say? The interactive process is simply a dialogue that you initiate with the employee, that explores reasonable accommodations in a timely manner. This process must be done in a good faith approach where you’re discussing the employee’s limitations, the essential functions of the job, and what possible reasonable accommodations are available. You’re not required to grant the accommodation that the employee put forth, nor do you need to decide upon receiving the request. In fact, you should take the time, again, in good faith, to consider true reasonable accommodation options, consider what reasonable accommodations have been granted in the past that are similar, and you may want to propose alternatives to the employee for consideration along with their healthcare provider.
Before you deny any alternatives, you should complete an undue hardship analysis of the option. What is an undue hardship? An undue hardship is defined as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense” when considered considering a number of factors, which can include the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of your business operation. An undue hardship analysis is based on an individualized assessment of the current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense (on the part of the employer). When doing your analysis, consider the following (and again, document your analysis):
- Nature and cost of the accommodation needed
- Overall financials of the Company and if applicable, within that specific facility
- Size, type, and location of the company and if applicable, facility
- Type of operation (including structure and functions), geographical data, administrative or fiscal relationship of the facility to the employer
- Impact of the accommodation on the facility’s operations
At this point, if more than one effective reasonable accommodation applies, then you may choose and propose the reasonable accommodation to the employee to consider. If the employee denies that leave, you go back to other options that are reasonable accommodations and offer the next best option to the employee. Each step of this process is considered the interactive process and it is important to keep a running log of the date a reasonable accommodation was made to the employee and the employee’s decision. If there is only one reasonable accommodation available or if the employee declines all of the reasonable accommodation options that have been offered in good faith, the employee may effectively resign or together you agree to end the employment relationship.
If there are no reasonable accommodations available that would allow the employee to continue to work, and/or they have exhausted other protected leave options such as outlined by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), offering the employee a leave of absence as a form of a reasonable accommodation may be appropriate. When doing this, typically your undue hardship analysis would include additional duration of requested leave. If an employee does not have a possible return to work date, that may be considered an undue hardship to maintain a position for that person indefinitely, for instance.
Remember – Document, Document, Document
As stated above, you should be documenting each step of the interactive process, as well as any and all reasonable accommodations that are offered to the employee. It is a best practice to provide requesting employees with a reasonable accommodation approval letter that outlines the offered reasonable accommodation, any applicable durations associated with that accommodation and a place for the employee to acknowledge that they accept the approved reasonable accommodation. If you deny a request for an accommodation, that also should be provided in writing to the employee. At JB Consulting Systems, we have created approval and denial letter templates that are a part of the Reasonable Accommodation Toolkit that will save you, the employer, time crafting such documents.
The management of reasonable accommodation requests can take time and the failure to follow the requested steps and having your documentation in order can lead to costly outcomes for an employer if they are challenged by a disgruntled employee. Here at JB Consulting Systems, we are here to manage this process for you or to provide guidance at any step along the way. Contact us if you want help now to proactively plan for these types of requests or as soon as one is requested.