When it comes to providing reasonable accommodation for an employee or job applicant under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the journey can be just as important as the destination. How a company navigates the interactive process involved in assessing a requested accommodation and whether an employer handles that process in a legally sufficient and mutually respectful way can play a determinative role in minimizing the chances of an ADA-based employment law claim.
Obligation to Make a “Reasonable Accommodation”
The ADA requires that companies with 15 or more employees provide “reasonable accommodations” for qualified applicants and employees with disabilities. What constitutes a reasonable accommodation in a given situation depends on the specifics of the job, its requirements and responsibilities, and the employee’s limitations.
Generally, however, a reasonable accommodation is any modification in the work environment or in the way a job is customarily performed that allows a disabled individual to apply for a position, do the job, or gain equal access to the benefits and privileges of that job. The accommodation must, in fact, be reasonable, meaning that an employer does not have to provide a requested or proposed accommodation if it would cause significant difficulty or expense.
What Is the ADA “Interactive Process”?
The ADA “interactive process” refers to the dialogue and good faith efforts involved in determining whether an accommodation request is reasonable and whether the employer will make the changes necessary to facilitate the candidate’s or employee’s performance of his or her job responsibilities.
An employer must engage in this required process once the applicant or worker makes an accommodation request known, either orally or in writing. The request does not need to identify a specific accommodation to trigger the employer’s ADA obligations. An employer should also begin the process if the employer knows that the worker has a disability or knows or should know that the employee is experiencing workplace challenges because of the disability — even without a request by the employee.
It is a process fraught with the potential for tension on both sides of the table. The employee or candidate very much wants the position, feels strongly that he or she can do a great job if only an accommodation is made, and understands that the employer has certain obligations under the ADA to afford him or her the opportunity. On the other hand, the employer wants to ensure that a qualified, capable person is in the position, that any accommodation is neither disruptive nor prohibitive, and that they meet all of their ADA requirements in order to avoid costly and reputation-tarnishing litigation.
Essential Elements of the Interactive Process
When evaluating a requested accommodation, an employer should take a respectful and open-minded approach and engage in the following steps as part of the interactive process:
- Gather information from the employee about his or her condition, limitations, capabilities, and concerns, as well as the nature and extent of the accommodation requested.
- Have the employee sign a written medical release allowing the employer to obtain information from the employee’s health care provider about the condition. Limit any inquires to only that information or documentation necessary to assess the employee’s ability to perform the role and what accommodations would facilitate that performance.
- In addition to considering any accommodation proposed by the employee, explore other possible reasonable accommodations that may allow the person to perform the job. While an employer must make a reasonable accommodation, they do not have to make the accommodation requested by the employee if there are other viable alternatives.
- Once the parties have agreed to a specific accommodation, work closely with the employee, supervisors, coworkers, and other relevant personnel to implement the accommodation and monitor its effectiveness.
- If, after good faith efforts, a reasonable accommodation cannot be found or agreed upon because the accommodation would cause “undue hardship” for the employer, the employer should explain and fully document the basis for such a determination.
Questions About Your Company’s ADA Obligations? Speak With a Michigan Employment Law Attorney Today
If you are a Michigan employer and have questions about your company’s ADA obligations, reasonable accommodations, or the interactive process, the employment law attorneys at Kreis Enderle can provide you with sound, straightforward counsel to protect your interests and guide your decision-making. Please contact Thomas Cedoz at TCedoz@kehb.com or (269) 324-3000 to arrange for a consultation.