Employees with Disabilities and the Americans with Disabilities Act

March 02, 2018 by Kim Spilker

Imagine meeting with your employees for their routine annual evaluations and having to tell your once star-performer that their performance is slipping and they are no longer meeting the requirements of the job. You may have a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) in mind, when the employee discloses that their work product has declined because they are having difficulty doing their job as a result of a medical condition, and you had no idea. Now what?

While some disabilities are obvious, others are not and this is why it is important to always be prepared when an employee discloses a medical condition, physical or mental, that is causing them difficulties at work.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and as expanded under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA), employers with 15 or more employees must ensure equal access to employment for applicants and employees. In other words, the ADA/ADAAA prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires that employers remove barriers to allow qualified individuals equal opportunity to secure and maintain employment without regard to their disability. This federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees that would allow them to perform the essential functions of their job, unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the business or pose a direct threat to the health or safety of the employee or another.

In order to determine whether there are reasonable accommodations available, employers should engage in an interactive process, a collaborative discussion with the employee to determine how the employee can continue to perform essential functions of their position. The following is a list of suggested steps employers should take to ensure a routine and consistent process:

  1. Recognize a request and ask the employee, “How can we help?”
  2. Gather information to determine limitations
  3. Identify essential functions vs. marginal functions by reviewing a current job description
  4. Explore accommodations
  5. Choose accommodations, if any, and notify the employee
  6. Monitor the effectiveness of the accommodation
  7. Maintain status quo or determine new accommodation

The interactive process should be individualized, meaning two employees with the same disability may have different limitations and result in different accommodations. Therefore, it’s important to gather information from a medical provider and have confidential discussions with the employee to learn more about possible accommodations.

While employers may get creative and come up with new ideas that work for both the nonprofit and the employee, other routine examples of accommodations include: allowing a telecommuting arrangement; authorizing additional breaks throughout the day for an employee to check insulin levels; providing leave to an employee for cancer treatment; and permitting an employee to leave work early to attend drug and alcohol rehabilitation sessions.

When working with disabled employees, employers should keep the following in mind:

  • The Interactive Process may be conducted face-to-face, through a phone conversation, or even by written instrument (e.g., email).
  • The employer may select accommodations and offer the employee alternatives and is not limited to the requested accommodation of the employee.
  • If the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodation, the employer may place the employee in a vacant position, so long as the employee is qualified and the employee can perform the essential functions of the vacant position.
  • Employers do not have to create light duty positions for employees with disabilities. The employee is expected to perform the essential functions of a job and the employer should evaluate accommodations to allow those functions to be performed.
  • Because the Interactive Process is an ongoing collaborative process, employers should monitor the effectiveness of an accommodation to determine if it should continue or if it is necessary to explore alternatives.

Returning to your star-performer who disclosed a medical condition during a performance discussion, a best practice would be to put the PIP on hold and refer the employee to your nonprofit’s HR Department/representative to commence the ADA interactive process. Ideally, managers will handle performance concerns and HR will handle the confidential accommodation interactive process.  Once the interactive process is completed, you should monitor both the effectiveness of the accommodation and the employee’s performance. It is acceptable to record the prior substandard performance in any evaluation, and to track performance during any accommodation period.

As always, nonprofits are encouraged to apply their policies and practices consistently.  By following the same general process, employers can lower their risk of a discrimination claim and maintain documentation to demonstrate compliance with federal law.  Employers also should be aware that some states have stricter requirements.  While the ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, some states have disability accommodation and anti-discrimination statutes that apply to even smaller workforces.

For more information on the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it can affect smaller nonprofits, also check out this article from the nonprofit knowledge network MissionBox.com.

Tags: Risk Management

Kim Spilker

About the Author

Kim Spilker is an Employment Risk Manager for the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance, where she counsels nonprofits on the management of employment risks by helping them understand employment law mandates and best practices to motivate and manage employees. Before that, Kim worked as in-house counsel in the Long Term Care industry where she focused on labor and employment matters, health care compliance and workers’ compensation. When she isn’t hard at work, Kim enjoys spending time at the beach and is always looking to learn something new. Kim holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a J.D. from Thomas Jefferson School of Law and is a member of the Connecticut Bar and Wisconsin Bar. She currently resides in the San Diego area with her three children.

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