Partial Disability and Reasonable Workplace Accommodations

Sometimes an employee is ready to come back to work after a debilitating injury, but cannot perform the same tasks or cannot operate in the same environment as before. In these cases it is the responsibility of the employer to work with the employee to make workplace and job duty modifications that allow the employee to return to work. Unless it represents an undue hardship, employers are required to reasonably accommodate applicants and employees with disabilities, such as making a facility accessible, restructuring a job, modifying a work schedule or modifying equipment. Note that this is only required for employees and applicants who are also qualified for the position.

What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that enables an employee or qualified applicant with a disability to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodation also includes adjustments to ensure that a qualified individual with a disability has the same rights and privileges as employees without disabilities. Some types of reasonable accommodation include:

  • Alternative working schedules
  • Reassignment to a different position
  • Provision of interpreters
  • Physical accessibility and usability
  • Alteration of equipment and/or provision of different equipment
  • Restructuring of job duties
  • Modified examinations, training sessions or policies

Leave from work beyond FMLA leave entitlement may be considered a reasonable accommodation.

Negotiating Changes and Legal Responsibilities

Most importantly, employers are prohibited from retaliating against a candidate or employee who has requested reasonable accommodations. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), reasonable accommodations are to be determined by an “interactive process.” The interactive process should consist of an open dialogue between the employer and the qualified individual about what types of reasonable accommodation(s) can be made to ensure that the applicant or employee can perform the essential functions of the position. If the employee has a disability insurance policy, the insurance carrier may be able to help negotiate these accommodations. In some cases, the insurance carrier will assist with costs associated with these accommodations. Employers should document the interactive process to demonstrate good faith efforts in providing reasonable accommodation(s) to any qualified individuals, should claims of discrimination arise.

While an employer is required to make reasonable accommodation, they can negotiate alternatives if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business. Undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as an employer’s size, financial resources and the nature and structure of its operation. An employer is not required to lower quality or production standards to make an accommodation; nor is an employer obligated to provide personal use items such as glasses or hearing aids.

Understanding your rights and responsibilities with regard to employee disability and reasonable accommodations can be complicated. In many cases, you third party administrator can help you navigate the complex issues with insurance carriers. If your group needs more information on reasonable accommodations, disability insurance, or ADA compliance, contact one of our benefit consultants for help.