Job accommodation is an adjustment to a job or work environment that makes it possible for an individual with a disability to perform their job duties. Accommodations may include specialized equipment, modifications to the work environment or adjustments to work schedules or responsibilities. Not all people with disabilities (or even all people with the same disability) need the same accommodation. For example, a job applicant who is deaf may need a sign language interpreter during the job interview; an employee who is blind or who has low vision may need someone to read the information posted on a bulletin board, and an employee with diabetes may need regularly scheduled breaks during the workday to monitor blood sugar and insulin levels.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is the leading source of expert, confidential guidance on workplace accommodations. It provides one-on-one consultation to employers and employees, as well as service providers and others, free of charge.
Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are three areas in which reasonable accommodations may be needed:
- Adjustments to the job application process so a qualified applicant with a disability can be considered for a position;
- Modifications to the physical work environment, or to the way a job is usually performed, so an individual with a disability can perform the essential functions of that position; and
- Changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment like those that are enjoyed by other employees without disabilities. This may include access to cafeterias, lounges, auditoriums and company-provided transportation.
The only legal limitation on an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation is that the changes or modifications may not cause “undue hardship” to the employer. “Undue hardship” means significant difficulty, including accommodations that are overly extensive or disruptive, or which could impact the actual running of a business.
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Why Provide Job Accommodations?
- Attract Good Employees
- Retain Experienced Workforce
- Comply with the ADA
There are many reasons for employers to provide job accommodations for all employees. In times of labour shortages, employers can attract good employees by offering accommodations such as flexible scheduling, work at home opportunities, job sharing, and ergonomic workstations. Also, providing such accommodations can help employers retain an experienced workforce by improving the overall morale of the workplace. And finally, providing job accommodations allows employers to meet their legal obligations under title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws.
A study conducted by JAN not only confirms the benefits of providing accommodations but also shows that providing accommodations is not costly. More than half the employers surveyed report that there was no cost for providing accommodation, and the rest of the employers surveyed reported a typical cost of $500. Although there are many benefits that result from providing job accommodations, some employers are not sure how to do so. The following information provides some helpful tips for employers who want to improve their ability to provide and maintain effective job accommodations.
Common Workplace Accommodation Situations
Most workplace accommodation situations are related to mental or physical disabilities, according to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Disabilities that have been recognized under human rights law include heart conditions, cancer, severe seasonal allergies, asthma, and visual acuity. Of course, those are just a few examples, and employees could have many other qualifying conditions.
Employees with disabilities (either short term or long term) may ask for workplace accommodations to help them perform their jobs to the best of their abilities. Accommodations can vary significantly from employee to employee since disabilities can affect people in many ways. Employees could ask for anything from flexible work hours to changes to their physical workspaces.
Accommodation requests might sometimes be related to other protected grounds. For example, an employee could convert to a new religion and have new obligations, like needing certain days off work. Employees might need accommodations due to a change in their family status.
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How to Handle Workplace Accommodation Requests?
From time to time, employees may come to you to request workplace accommodations. These requests need to be handled with care. By handling requests delicately, you can help your employees feel valued.
When employees make accommodation requests, they need to tell you what their barriers are and offer suggestions for possible accommodations. They don’t need to tell you anything about their specific diagnosis or treatment plan, though they may voluntarily offer this information. If you receive any medical information, remember to keep it confidential.
With your employees’ needs and accommodation suggestions in mind, you can determine appropriate workplace accommodations. Work with your employees to find accommodation that will help them complete their work tasks. If you offer reasonable accommodations, but your employees reject them, your duty to accommodate may be absolved. Your lawyer can advise you in this area.
Sometimes, employees will need accommodations but won’t ask you for them. They may feel uncomfortable asking you for help or could worry they’ll experience negative consequences as a result of their request. If employees are using more sick leave, being late more often, or otherwise not acting like their usual selves, it’s ok to talk to them and ask if there’s anything you can do to accommodate them. If they don’t want any help, document everything so you can show you met the duty to accommodate.
Limits on the Duty to Accommodate
The employer’s duty to accommodate has limits. If an employee’s accommodation causes undue hardship for you, you aren’t required to offer accommodations. There are no set criteria for determining undue hardship, but evidence must be offered. For example, it’s not enough to say the accommodations will be too expensive. Substantial evidence has to be provided, so it’s a good idea to seek advice from an employment lawyer.
Limits on accommodations can also be reasonable in cases where there’s a bona fide occupational requirement. This means employers can show there are specific requirements for every individual in a specific job. For example, it’s reasonable to need truck drivers to meet vision standards. Bonafide occupational requirements are also something you should talk to your employment lawyer about.
Workplace accommodations help your employees reach their full potential at work, without being held back by discrimination. By helping your employees succeed, you can strengthen your business.
Principles of Accommodation For Employers – OHRC
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) sets out three principles for proper and respectful employment accommodations. According to the OHRC, the best accommodations respect the individual’s dignity, respond to their individual needs, and empower them to participate and integrate with the work environment fully.
Accommodations must respect the individual’s dignity. Consideration for an individual’s self-respect, self-worth, integrity and empowerment are essential to a dignified accommodation. This means that the accommodation an employer provides must not stigmatize or devalue the individual or their work. Accommodating an employee should not make the employee feel like they are a burden or of lesser value to their employer than any other employee.
This also means that employers should respect the privacy and comfort of the employee seeking accommodation. Disabilities and mental and physical health are often deeply stigmatized, and employees have a right to expect privacy in these regards. Except for the circumstances of the most extreme suspicion, employers should not ask an employee seeking accommodation for documentation or any further ‘proof’ of their need for accommodation. The employee’s word is, almost always, enough evidence for the need for accommodation.
Each person’s needs are unique and should be considered as such. Accommodation is not a one-size-fits-all solution. What is helpful to one employee may not work for another. While it is important to have general policies and procedures for accommodations, employers need to have a degree of flexibility.
Sometimes, providing an employee with accommodation is straightforward: you facilitate a leave of absence, or you allow an employee to start and end work half an hour early so they can pick up their child from daycare. However, finding the best accommodation is often a process. Employee’s accommodation needs are sometimes complex and inconsistent, especially when they relate to their physical and mental health. When this is the case, it may take some time, experimentation and flexibility to find the most dignified, individualized and empowering accommodation possible. Although it is not the job of the employee requesting accommodation to come up with their accommodation solution, they should be involved in the process. Since they know their needs better than anyone, their input is indispensable when coming up with an appropriate and practical accommodation.
- Integration and Full Participation
Employees seeking accommodation are not looking for their employer to ‘take it easy’ on them. Rather, they are looking to be a fully contributing member of their team.
Therefore, accommodations should maximize individuals’ ability to engage in the workplace fully. As an employer, one of the best starting points in a conversation with an employee requesting an accommodation is asking how I can help you be successful at work? This question allows the employee to focus on their needs and decide how much they want to disclose their situation. The success of your employees will be reflected in the success of your business. It is in your interest to accommodate employees’ needs to ensure they can fully participate in – and therefore contribute to – the workplace.
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Monitor and Update Accommodations
Do Not Forget To:
- Monitor the Effectiveness of the Accommodation
- Update Periodically if Needed
- Keep the Lines of Communication Open
- Document Efforts
Once you have successfully determined and implemented accommodation, some accommodations may need to be monitored and periodically updated. For example, if the accommodation involved equipment, the equipment may need periodic maintenance. If the accommodation involved software that interfaces with an existing system, the software may need to be updated as the overall system is updated. If the accommodation involved a new method of doing things, the method might need to be modified as the workplace changes.
One of the best ways to monitor accommodations is to keep the lines of communication open with employees. Communication is important throughout the accommodation process, including the monitoring stage. Employees need to know that they can revisit accommodation if needed before performance problems result.
Finally, employers may want to document their accommodation efforts. Documentation can be useful for new supervisors or managers or in case a dispute arises between the employer and an employee. Keep in mind that all documentation that contains medical information must be maintained in a confidential manner.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Do Not Delay
- Consider Trial Period if Needed
- Know ADA Rules
- Keep the Employee Informed
There are several important things that employers should keep in mind as they go through this accommodation process. First, they should always remember to process an accommodation request quickly; unnecessary delays can result in a violation of the ADA.
Second, employers should keep in mind that they can use a trial period when they are not sure whether an accommodation will work. Many times employers cannot determine whether something will work unless they try it, but they are afraid they will get locked into accommodation once they agree to it. A simple solution is to let the employee know that the accommodation will be implemented for a trial period, and if it does not work, something else will be considered.
Third, although employers are free to do more than required under the ADA, they should know the ADA rules regarding reasonable accommodation to make sure they are doing at least what is required. The EEOC offers many practical guides for employers regarding ADA compliance on its Website.
Finally, it is very helpful to keep employees informed throughout the accommodation process; employees who understand what steps the employer is taking and why certain decisions are made, are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome.
Accommodations often benefit more than the intended party. Many workers will, at one time or another in their careers, find themselves in need of accommodation. Therefore, developing policies that are adaptive and inclusive will allow you to manage your staff in a way that is productive and enables them to be their best selves.
Helping employees who have a disability to remain productive is the objective of accommodation. Developing sustainable solutions is more likely to happen by engaging employees to help determine what will work for them. The strategies shared here can help support the discussion with an employee with a mental health-related disability.