A Key Question about ADA Accommodations

Because many employers are not well versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are often uncertain about whether a requested accommodation must be granted. The good news is that an accommodation does not have to be granted if it does not actually allow the employee to perform his or her job. The purpose of an accommodation is to provide a way for the essential function of the work to be performed—and not to provide a way for it to be avoided.

 For example, the firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP had a client who received a request for accommodation from a salesperson employee with “depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” Because interactions with some customers “triggered her symptoms . . . she requested an accommodation that would permit her to terminate such sales calls and not deal with such individuals in the future.” The client did not know what to do, because it didn’t think it could quantify the undue hardship that such an accommodation would cause.

In this case, the client was focusing on the wrong question (as many employers in this situation do). A better question is to ask whether the requested accommodation even falls under the definition of an ADA accommodation. The Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP attorney describing this case explains:

Remember that in order to be covered under the ADA, the request must be something that permits the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. Even if the requested changes are feasible, if the employee cannot perform those essential functions, the request may be declined without the need to demonstrate undue hardship.

If the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job, he or she can be terminated. After all, the purpose of having an employee in any position is for that person to perform the essential work of that job. An employee who cannot do that after it has been determined that an accommodation can help in that process is ineligible for that job.

 Naturally, an employer should not take these actions until it has fulfilled the requirements of the ADA by participating in and documenting an interactive discussion with the employee about his or her requested accommodation. If such an accommodation is intended to enable the employee to avoid doing the necessary work completely, then that employee is not able to perform the essential functions of the job.

Michael Haberman is cofounder and senior HR consultant of Omega HR Solutions Inc. His company offers HR solutions that include compliance reviews, wage and hour guidance, supervisory and managerial training, strategic guidance, executive advisement, and more. He also contributes articles to the Workology website. He can be reached at mhaberman@omegahrsolutions.com.