The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was established to ensure equal opportunities in the workplace. This guide provides the following:
- A basic framework for qualifying accommodation requests
- Best practices for applying the interactive process
- Steps for implementing an accommodation
State and local laws with unique requirements may apply in addition to the federal ADA.
What are reasonable accommodations?
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to enable a qualified person with a disability to perform the essential functions of their position. The accommodation may include adjustments to procedures, equipment, work environment, or the specifics of the job itself. However, an accommodation must not present an undue hardship to the company.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that an undue hardship under the ADA “must be based on an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense.” The EEOC website provides guidelines on assessing undue hardships.
ADA requirements and qualifications
The ADA applies to any employer with 15 or more employees. However, many states have set lower thresholds.
The ADA’s reasonable accommodation standard applies to current employees and job applicants. A qualifying employee or applicant must have the skills to perform the job’s essential functions. Employers are not required to lower production standards or change essential functions of the job as a reasonable accommodation. It is, therefore, advisable to develop job descriptions that clearly define each position’s primary responsibilities and requirements.
For a disability (mental or physical) to apply under the ADA, it must substantially limit a major life activity for the employee. Employers are authorized to request that the employee provide documentation from a health care provider to confirm the need for accommodation.
Guidelines for the ADA interactive process
Employers should establish a policy outlining the process for requesting an ADA accommodation. This policy should be clearly laid out in the employee handbook.
Each request requires an interactive process involving a thorough analysis with several factors to consider, including the organization’s overall financial resources and the accommodation’s impact on the company.
1. Initiate the ADA reasonable accommodation request.
Employees may not know if they qualify for an accommodation or how to initiate the request process. Therefore, employers must proactively recognize when an accommodation may be warranted. The employer should inform the employee and initiate the interactive process.
2. Engage with the employee to understand the accommodation request.
The process of determining whether an accommodation is appropriate is collaborative. Employer and employee must work together toward a shared understanding of what accommodation the employee is requesting and what a feasible accommodation would look like, then determine a solution. All communications and deliberations should be documented as evidence of the interactive process. Send a follow-up email or letter summarizing what was discussed in verbal conversations. It can also be helpful to have a third-party present for such discussions.
3. Gather the information needed to process the ADA accommodation request.
In this step, the employer assesses the extent to which the impairment conflicts with the employee’s ability to perform their job functions. Gather the documentation required to determine if the employee has a qualifying disability. It’s essential to provide the employee with a medical certification form to be completed by a medical provider; this differs from a standard FMLA WH-380 medical certification form. It is imperative to include an up-to-date copy of the employee’s job description so the medical provider has sufficient information regarding the essential job functions. Medical documentation should be kept separate from the employee’s primary employment file.
This process, including the collection of any confidential medical information, should be handled by an HR professional, not the employee’s manager. Accommodations may be ongoing due to a lifelong condition, but some, such as pregnancy-related accommodations, will have a determined timeline. Determine with the employee if the accommodation will be for a set amount of time or if it will be a permanent accommodation.
4. Determine whether the employee has a qualifying disability.
The employee and an HR professional — not the employee’s manager — should discuss what is restricting the employee from performing their job functions. If a medical condition is cited, the company should request medical certification to get a medical professional’s input. However, impairments need not be severe to qualify for an accommodation. Each request requires an individual assessment.
5. Determine what (if any) reasonable accommodations may be necessary.
Set up a time to speak with the employee to review the request, medical certification, and what accommodation options the organization can provide. Once in place, the employee should be held to the same performance standards as other employees performing the same role.
After completing the interactive process, provide a formal letter to the employee stating the approval or denial of the accommodation request. The letter should include the timeframe for the accommodation. Also, if check-ins are required to establish the continuation of the accommodation, a timeline for those meetings should be laid out. This information should also be added to the medical form if the accommodation request has been denied, including an explanation.
Whether the accommodation has been approved or denied, the employee should sign this letter, and a copy should be kept in their personnel file.
Examples of accommodations:
- A part-time or modified work schedule
- Equipment modifications and improved accessibility
- Job restructuring
- Unpaid leave
- Changes to the delivery of instructions, work orders, and training materials
- Provision of assistive services
Follow up with the employee
After an accommodation has been implemented, it is best practice to check in with the employee to ensure it is going well. Unanticipated consequences may arise that will need to be resolved. For example, an employee who has been granted an accommodation to work remotely may feel isolated or need help getting timely responses from other teammates. Work routines or equipment modifications may need to be adjusted for safety. Follow-up check-ins will help bring these concerns to your attention earlier and prevent further issues.
Consider additional support with ADA accommodations requests
The ADA accommodation process is complex, and varying state laws may come into play. Uncertainties or conflicts can result in legal vulnerability. Leveraging a leave and accommodation software solution is an effective way to manage and track this process in alignment with regulations. Additionally, if a request cannot be clearly resolved internally, consider bringing in a competent third party to assist with the process. A qualified organization with an understanding of the ADA and the interactive process can provide objectivity, ensure a compliant resolution, and reduce employer risk.