ADA Compliance Tips: Lean Into the “Interactive Process”

Dealing with employee medical issues is one of the trickiest areas for even the most seasoned Human Resources professionals. The federal Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires that employers (with 15 or more employees) follow two main rules:

(1) refrain from discriminating against qualified employees with disabilities; and

(2) provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities that will enable them to perform the essential functions of their job (and to provide accommodations to disabled applicants in the hiring process).

The first prong simply means not taking one’s disability into account or treating employees with disabilities less favorably than non-disabled employees.

The second prong is the one that most often gets missed or short-circuited. As part of the second prong, employers actually have an affirmative duty to engage in an “interactive process” with employees about their disability. This may feel counter-intuitive to managers who believe they should not know or ask about sensitive medical situations of their workers. But leaning into, not away from, medical issues–once a manager is on notice that one exists–is actually the better course of action.

The “interactive process” involves a few steps:

• responding to employee requests for changes to their job due to a medical hardship – *it is advisable to ask the employee to complete a Reasonable Accommodation Request form for this step*
• asking follow up questions and obtaining supporting medical documentation from the employee, and
• considering the requests in good faith, and circling back with the employee.

It is intended to be a give-and-take; a conversation. It does not mean the employer must grant the requested accommodation if an alternative, less burdensome one is also an option. Only accommodations that are reasonable and would not pose an “undue hardship” on the company are required. If management denies the requested accommodation, the process is not over. The employer should explain the decision to the employee and ask about other accommodations that might work. Again, the ADA requires a back-and-forth discussion.

Some examples of accommodations that courts have found to be reasonable are leaves of absence, reduced hours or a different schedule, temporary light duty, allowing more frequent breaks, and providing additional equipment, such as a magnifying computer monitor for an employee with a vision impairment or a standing desk for an employee with a back condition.

Importantly, employers do not have to remove or reassign an essential function of the employee’s job. For instance, if climbing ladders is an essential function of a warehouse specialist role, and the warehouse specialist can no longer climb due to a serious leg injury, the employer does not have to assign another employee to go up and down the ladder for him.

Employer Take Away: Once an employer is aware that an employee has a medical condition that is impacting their ability to perform their job, the manager should involve Human Resources or legal counsel for guidance. Having a direct conversation with the disabled worker about their limitations is actually the best way to minimize your organization’s ADA risks.

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