Many small business owners find themselves between a rock and a hard place when trying to perform their duty to accommodate employees with physical disabilities. Trying to follow the letter of the various laws surrounding the issue and navigating the how-to’s while simultaneously not imposing extreme hardship on the business can be overwhelming.

There are two main laws that cover the reasonable accommodation process, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Both acts require employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees with disabilities, with the exception that the accommodations shall not impose an “undue hardship” on the business or employer. All businesses should have a standard policy or guideline regarding employees with disabilities and outline their duty to accommodate.

Reasonable Accommodation in The Workplace

What Is Your Duty To Accommodate?

A reasonable accommodation is essentially an adjustment or modification to an employee’s tasks, their work environment, or the way(s) in which things are usually done that will allow a disabled employee to enjoy an equal employment opportunity. The reasonable accommodation will allow the employee to perform aspects of their job despite their disability. There are many ways an employer can accommodate a qualified employee. One of the most common accommodations is by modifying the facility such as changing the height of a desk, installing larger monitors or telecommunication equipment. Employers may also accommodate an employee by allowing additional time off for medical appointments or restructuring the job to allow for a flexible work week schedule.

Undue Hardship

The ADA and EEOC provide protections for employers, especially small businesses, by including language that indicates that an accommodation shall not cause an undue hardship on the business. An undue hardship can be a financial hardship due to the nature and costs of the particular accommodation. A hardship can also be if the accommodation is deemed to be disruptive to the workplace. It’s important to note, that there are some tax credits available to help offset the costs of hiring a person with a qualified disability. The EEOC is responsible for enforcing the laws surrounding reasonable accommodations and their website provides further guidance on the topic.

The Do Not’s of Reasonable Accommodations

While it is perfectly acceptable to negotiate with your employee on exactly what accommodations they would like made, there are some definite no’s in this gray area of the law.

  • Do not request too much medical information
  • Do not share the employee’s disability
  • Do not discontinue communication with the employee before a conclusion is reached
  • Do not forget to document all communications and accommodations
  • Do not use “undue hardship” liberally

If you’re approached by an employee requesting a reasonable accommodation, do your homework and explore all your options. A recent study found that 31% of employers were able to reasonably accommodate qualified employees without a cost to the company. The study also found that 50% of employers were able to reasonably accommodate qualified employees for a cost of less than $50. Further, accommodating qualified employees will allow you to maintain a valuable employee, increase the employee’s productivity, and not incur additional expenses associated with hiring and training a new employee.

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