Reasonable Accommodation in the Workplace

The phrase “reasonable accommodation” tends to be something many employees have heard before, but its meaning is not always clear.

Reasonable accommodation requests can arise in two different types of situations: (1) When an employee or job applicant suffers from a physical or mental disability and requires certain adjustments to the work environment to accommodate that disability; or (2) When an employee or job applicant’s sincerely-held religious beliefs and/or practice require an adjustment to certain working conditions in order to accommodate the individual’s religious beliefs and/or practice.

In disability cases, the employer is permitted to ask questions and seek supporting medical documentation to clarify the individual’s disabling medical condition and the requested reasonable accommodation. This is part of the interactive process, which an employer is required to partake in upon receiving a reasonable accommodation request. If the employee or applicant fails or refuses to provide the requested medical information, it is easier for the employer to deny the accommodation request without fear of negative repercussions. Therefore, if a certain type of accommodation is needed in order for the employee or applicant to be able to accomplish the essential functions of his or her job, it is very important to provide the employer with the medical information requested, so long as the medical information sought by the employer is reasonably connected to the particular disability and accommodation request in question.

Religious accommodation cases are slightly different, as the EEOC generally recommends that because the definition of religion is so broad, employers should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12: Religious Discrimination (https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html). The interactive process in religious accommodation cases therefore tends to be less cumbersome than in disability accommodation cases. However, if the individual seeking the accommodation has behaved in a way that is markedly inconsistent with his or her professed religious belief, or if the particular accommodation sought appears to be beneficial to the individual for purely secular reasons, this might give rise to the employer questioning whether the individual really holds the professed sincerely-held religious belief and whether the requested religious accommodation is truly necessary.

Once the employee or applicant establishes that an accommodation is necessary for him or her to be able to carry out the essential functions of the position, the employer will typically only be allowed to completely deny providing reasonable accommodation where the reasonable accommodation will cause an undue burden to the employer. Assessing whether an accommodation is unduly burdensome typically becomes an economic question, and the EEOC will explore how costly the accommodation would be to the employer in reaching a conclusion as to whether or not the denied accommodation was unduly burdensome.

One area of contention in reasonable accommodation cases tends to be the type of accommodation ultimately granted to an employee or applicant. While qualified individuals have the right to request and secure reasonable accommodation so long as it is not an undue burden to the employer, oftentimes the reasonable accommodation granted to an employee is not necessarily the same accommodation that was requested by the employee. For instance, a disabled employee who seeks telework as a reasonable accommodation to accommodate a disability that affects his ability to drive might be alternatively granted an accommodation whereby the employer allows him a flexible starting and/or ending time for work that coincides with public transit or available carpool schedules. Similarly, if an employee whose position requires her to be on-call on weekends seeks a religious accommodation that permits her to have every Sunday off for religious service, but the religious service she attends is over by 1:00 p.m., she may be granted an accommodation whereby she is not on call for the specific period of time in which she attends religious services rather than for the entire day.

The EEOC’s website contains a significant amount of guidance regarding reasonable accommodations for disabilities and for religious reasons. For example, see EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12: Religious Discrimination (https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html), and the EEOC website’s overview of Disability Discrimination (https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/disability.cfm). Additionally, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) (www.askjan.org) can be a terrific resource for employees with disabilities to explore and discover potential accommodations that may help them to be able to accomplish their essential job functions.

If you are seeking or have been denied a reasonable accommodation from the federal government and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.