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Navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act for Current Employees and Employers

August 23rd, 2018

By Jessica Brown

Navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act for Current Employees and EmployersThis is the first in a multipart series about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA is a federal law under the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

What are basics of the ADA at work?

Specifically, under the ADA employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities that will enable those employees to perform essential job functions.

What is a disability?

A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities: such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, or breathing.

Disabilities include obvious things like being blind or in a wheelchair and less obvious things, like back injuries or dyslexia. It must be substantially limiting and not just a minor inconvenience. For example, a sprained ankle or broken arm is not a disability.

What are essential job functions?

The fundamental duties of the position are the things a person holding the job absolutely must be able to do.

For example, a commercial truck driver whose eyesight deteriorated to the point that he could no longer hold a commercial driver’s license is unable to perform an essential job function.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is a change to a job or work environment that enables an employee with a disability to perform her essential job functions.

Reasonable accommodations cover a wide range of responses to an employee’s disability. They can include:

  • Making existing facilities readily accessible to employees with disabilities.
  • Modifying work schedules (including using leave).
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment.
  • Providing readers or interpreters; or restructuring a job.

Examples of disabilities and reasonable accommodations include:

  • Disability: A cashier with lupus becomes tired when required to stand throughout her shift and therefore has difficulty making it through her whole shift. Reasonable Accommodation: Allowing the cashier to sit on a stool.
  • Disability: A person who used a wheelchair could not use a desk because it was too low and his knees would not go under it. Reasonable Accommodation: The desk was raised with wood blocks, allowing a proper amount of space for the wheelchair to fit under it.
  • Disability: A medical technician who was deaf could not hear the buzz of a timer, which was necessary for specific laboratory tests. Reasonable Accommodation: An indicator light was attached to the equipment, which lit up rather than buzzed when the timer went off.
  • Disability: An employee with cancer undergoes chemotherapy twice a week, which causes her to be ill afterwards. The treatment will last six weeks. Reasonable Accommodation: The employee is allowed leave on the two days a week she has chemotherapy.

How do I ask for a reasonable accommodation?

You must let your employer know that you need help at work for medical reasons.

But you don’t have to use the magic words “reasonable accommodation.” Simply saying, “I’m having trouble getting to work by 8:00 am because of medical treatments I’m receiving” is enough.

You can tell a supervisor or someone in human resources. Human resources is frequently easier, as they are often better trained at responding to accommodation requests.

At any time, you can contact your shop steward for help with this process.

Once the request is made, what happens next?

Your employer does not have to act immediately, but they need to respond as quickly as possible.

An employer is permitted to ask questions or request medical documentation about the nature of your disability and how it is limiting you. If seeking documentation, the employer should describe what it needs – likely it will include describing the disability, how it limits you, and what kind of accommodations you need.

As an employee, you do not need to specify what kind of accommodation you want, although it may be helpful. But you do need to describe the problems you are facing at the work place.

An employer will explore accommodation options and select one. It does not have to be the option that you have suggested. You do not necessarily have to accept the option initially selected by the employer, but both you and your employer must work towards a solution in good faith.

If more than one effective option exists, your employer may choose the less expensive one.

If the accommodation alters the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, your employer must negotiate with the union as well. For example, a union in a workplace with bargained seniority rules must consent to a change in those rules where an employer proposes giving an employee a change in position as a reasonable accommodation that would otherwise violate those seniority rules.

The accommodation does not have to last forever. If either your employer or you feel it is not working, you or your employer can re-start the process to try and find a working reasonable accommodation.

Who will my medical information be shared with?

Employees often have concerns and questions about whether the medical information they provide to the employer will be kept confidential.

The answer is yes, both medical information and requests for reasonable accommodation are to be kept confidential by your employer. An employer cannot share with co-workers any information about your disability, medical condition, or accommodations.

The only information that might involve coworkers is where first aid and safety personnel are informed if your disability might require emergency treatment or if any specific procedures are needed in the case of evacuation.

However, you are free to tell co-workers about your disability, medical condition, or any accommodations you are receiving.

If you have questions about employment law, please contact the labor and employment lawyers at Willig, Williams & Davidson at (800) 631-1233.

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