Tag Archives: employee accommodations

Helpful Guidance in Determining a Position’s Essential Functions under the ADA

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, October 19, 2018

16306823 - 3d illustration of scales of justice and gavel on orange background

Illustration of scales of justice and gavel on orange background

A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois sheds light on how to determine what job tasks are properly considered essential functions of a position under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A plaintiff alleging that her employer denied her a reasonable accommodation for her disability must prove that she is a qualified individual, which requires showing that she can perform all the essential functions of the job with or without an accommodation. In the recent decision, the court dismissed a police officer’s failure to accommodate claim because the police officer could not perform certain functions deemed essential to her position. Specifically, she could not ambulate independently or handle a firearm. The police officer claimed these duties were not essential because she was on limited duty indefinitely and spent most of her days working at a desk.

The court delved into federal regulations and case law to determine whether a particular job duty should be deemed essential. Written job descriptions and other indications of an employer’s judgment about a position’s essential functions provide convincing – but not controlling – evidence. Courts will also consider other evidence regarding whether a task is essential, including the amount of time the employee typically spends on the function, the consequence of not requiring the employee to perform the function, terms of any collective bargaining agreement, and the work experience of prior employees or other current employees in that same position. Courts may also make additional inquiries, more likely determining that a function is essential if any of the following are true: (i) the position exists to perform the function, (ii) there are a limited number of employees among whom the function can be distributed; (iii) the function is highly specialized and/or the employee was employed specifically for her expertise or ability to perform that function.

The court also provided helpful analysis in determining essential functions where an employee is responsible for multiple tasks on a rotating basis. A court will likely find that each of the multiple duties are essential functions, even where the employee completes some of the duties only rarely, if the employer can justify why it requires each employee in that position to be able to complete all duties. An employer may satisfy this burden by showing, for example, that the workforce is too small to justify hiring specialists for each separate task or that there are unexpected surges in demand for a particular task.

The court found that even here where the plaintiff did not generally handle a firearm in her limited duty position, the police force could require all officers to be able to handle a firearm regardless of their day-to-day duties because being able to arrest someone is a central purpose of the police force.

Employers should analyze each position in the workforce to understand the position’s essential duties before an issue arises. Being able to differentiate between essential functions and marginal functions will assist an employer in determining its obligations when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation. While an employer may be required to excuse an employee from completing marginal functions, the ADA does not require it to excuse an employee from performing essential functions.  However, it may need to provide accommodations to enable the employee to perform those essential functions.

 

Help! Our New Hire Showed Up with a Service Dog!

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb, October 8, 2018

guide dog silhouettes

Silhouette of two guide dogs with owners

Reasonable accommodation issues often require an employer to balance the needs of the employee requesting accommodation with the needs of other employees who are impacted by the decision. These issues can be magnified when an employee relies on a service dog. Most employers are unfamiliar with the issue, and courts and enforcement agencies provide little guidance on service dogs in the employment context. As a result, when the issue arises, many employers scramble to answer the most basic questions: Are we required to allow a service dog in the workplace? What if another employee complains or is allergic?

First and foremost a request to bring a service dog to work is a request for a reasonable accommodation and should be analyzed in a manner consistent with other accommodation requests. That means:

Step 1: Engage interactively to determine whether the individual has a disability and can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Check state and local laws. This article addresses federal law, but state and local laws may impose additional requirements.

Step 2: Will the service dog’s presence allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the position? In at least one reported case, the court concluded the employer was not required to allow the service dog because the employee failed to prove that the assistance the service dog provided was related to his job duties. Remember, however, service dogs provide assistance in a variety of ways. It is widely known that dogs can be trained to assist people with visual impairments but service dogs can also be trained to assist people with seizure disorders, PTSD, and a wide range of physical and mental impairments. There is no legally recognized service dog certification. In fact, dogs are often training to meet a particular person’s unique needs.

Step 3: Will the business be burdened by the service dog? If so, are there less onerous ways to accommodate the employee? The ADA requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation unless it can prove that doing so imposes an “undue burden.” However, the employee is not entitled to dictate the nature of the accommodation. The employer can chose from alternative accommodation options so long as the accommodation provided is effective.

“Undue burden” is difficult to prove. While the determination is necessarily fact sensitive, it is unlikely a co-worker’s allergy will be sufficient. If the issue arises, the employer should look to ways to mitigate the impact on the co-worker. Is it feasible to have the dog use a particular entrance and remain in a specific area that the allergic co-worker can then avoid? What other changes can be made to meet the needs of both employees?

Employers should insist that the dog is well behaved and properly controlled at all times while in the workplace. If problems arise they should be addressed promptly and be well documented.

 

Register Now! Managing Employee Medical Issues in the Workplace Webinar – September 12th

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Webinar-TemplateJoin Rebecca Dobbs Bush and Joe Trevino, on September 12 at noon CT as they share valuable insight and best practices to help business owners and human resource professionals navigate the quagmire of managing employee medical issues in the workplace. 

Managing employee medical issues has become more challenging due to increasingly complex regulations. In order to minimize risk, employers must learn to effectively handle requests for accommodations, paid and unpaid leaves of absence, employee benefits, and wage and hour issues; areas that are ripe for abuse.

When employee medical issues are handled on a fair and consistent basis and abuses are prevented, a positive workplace culture is fostered, and employee morale, retention and productivity are improved.

Register

Failure to Engage in Ongoing, Individualized Interactive Process Could Cost Millions

Contributed by Noah A. Frank

A bit of strategic planning could have saved an employer from a federal jury’s $5.5 million verdict for a mechanic who claimed his accommodations were discontinued after eight (8) years. Labor LawA heavy equipment mechanical repairman  was subject to medical restrictions for lifting, climbing, and postural limitations. Despite these restrictions, he performed the essential functions of the job with accommodations. This all changed on December 28, 2011 when he returned to work from an unrelated gallbladder surgery; his new supervisor noted his arthritis-related work restrictions and allegedly told him that no one was allowed to work in the department with limitations. All accommodations ceased.

The jury found that he was a qualified individual with a disability, who should have been provided with an accommodation, and was terminated because of his disability. Further, his employer failed to prove either that an accommodation would not be possible, or that he was a threat to his own or others’ safety.

What Should Have Happened?

Administrative agencies (like the EEOC and state/local counterparts) and courts expect employers to engage in the Interactive Process for individuals with known/disclosed disabilities to determine whether:

  • The employer can provide an accommodation to remove barriers to enable the employee to perform the essential (non-marginal) functions of the job, and
  • That the accommodation is reasonable.

If neither of those is true, the individual may not be a qualified individual with a disability, and therefore not protected under relevant civil rights laws.

In this situation, it seems that the employer’s biggest mistake was suddenly deciding that years-old accommodations were no longer possible. If anything, the company should have re-addressed his individual needs by engaging in the process. Having done so, it could have then considered changing the accommodations.

Interactive Process – Done Right

Every employee and employment situation is unique, so frustratingly there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, some general steps for a successful Interactive Process include:

  • First, meet with the employee. Inquire about any limitations from the known/disclosed disability (of course, employers may not simply inquire whether any employee has a disability, as this would run afoul of these disability acts as well).
  • Next, review the employee’s ability to perform the essential, required job functions. Ask what, if any, accommodations are being sought.
  • Consider in good faith the requested accommodations, or if none, what you can offer to assist the worker. If some are possible, implement them to enable the employee to be a productive worker; if none, carefully consider next steps, including perhaps an administrative termination.
  • Finally, in tricky situations, consult with employment counsel.

 

Universally Applied Seniority-Based Bidding System Trumps ADA Accommodation Says Seventh Circuit – Though Dissenter Disagrees

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb

On December 3, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) affirmed dismissal of a failure to accommodate claim brought by an employee bumped from a job assignment that accommodated his disability after his employer opened that assignment to seniority-based bidding pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

After a series of injuries and several extended leaves of absence, the employee was released to return to work with permanent restrictions that prevented him from performing many of the physically demanding essential functions of his position. The employer accommodated his restrictions by placing him into the fairly sedentary “Matrix position.” The CBA allowed employees to bid on their desired work assignments and required the employer place them in their selections according to seniority. The Matrix assignment, however, was reserved for employees with permanent restrictions and was not subject to seniority-based bidding.

The employee had held the Matrix position for years when the employer decided the position should be included in the seniority-based competitive bidding scheme. The employee did not have enough seniority to hold the position. He inquired about several no-bid positions, but none were available at the time. Ultimately he was placed on extended leave and sued.

Office PeopleThe employee claimed his employer failed to accommodate his disability by refusing to allow him to remain in the Matrix position and by failing to place him in a no-bid position. Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Court held that the employer was not required to violate a uniformly enforced seniority system in order to accommodate an employee’s disability. The employee’s argument with respect to the no-bid positions failed because he could not show a vacancy existed at the relevant time, reaffirming that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require an employer to create a vacancy or “bump” other employers in order to provide an accommodation.

Notably, however, a dissent was filed. The dissenting judge pointed out that the prior precedent on which the majority relied, specifically allowed that “special circumstances” can warrant a finding that the requested accommodation is reasonable under the particular facts despite the existence of a seniority system. He concluded that evidence that the employer excluded the Matrix position from the seniority system for years could warrant such a finding. Whether the employee will ask the United States Supreme Court to review the decision remains to be seen.

Bottom line: Although this decision is a win for the employer and welcomed guidance for employers who regularly find themselves balancing individual employee’s ADA rights and its obligations under a CBA, the dissent highlights the fact that, as with all things ADA, there are no clear answers. Careful analysis of all accommodation options and a review of available positions must be conducted on a case by case basis.