From the desk of Linda Carter Batiste, J.D., Director of Services and Publications
Many employers assign their human resources (HR department) the duty of processing accommodation requests from employees with disabilities rather than allow individual supervisors to process the requests; having one person or department be responsible for accommodations can help with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, consistency, and documentation. However, even when HR is responsible for processing accommodations, it’s the supervisors who often receive initial requests, which can lead to problems if supervisors don’t pass the requests on to HR. In some cases, well-meaning supervisors decide they will just informally help an employee without telling HR. In other cases, not so well-meaning supervisors make a decision to deny an accommodation request without consulting HR. Here are some examples:
Example 1: An employer’s policy is to allow supervisors the discretion to let employees telework once a week. One supervisor is against telework and does not let any employees telework, including employees with disabilities who ask to telework as an accommodation. One employee with a disability decides to go to HR after the supervisor denies his request to telework. That’s when HR discovers what the supervisor has been doing.
Example 2: A supervisor has been informally helping a long term employee who has a progressive medical condition and limitations that interfere with job performance. After a while it gets to the point that the supervisor is doing most of the employee’s job. When the supervisor starts having trouble getting her own work done, she tells HR about the situation.
Example 3: An employer has job descriptions that outline the essential and marginal functions of its jobs. The employer relies on these job descriptions when determining whether someone is qualified for a job and when providing accommodations. When a supervisor retires and a new supervisor takes over the department, he finds out the old supervisor had been removing essential functions for employees with disabilities when needed. The old supervisor had never reported this practice to HR.
Now what? How can these employers undo what the supervisors have done? Here are a few suggestions:
- Immediately review any accommodation requests that were denied and determine whether you can approve them or provide alternative accommodations.
- Don’t make immediate changes to undocumented accommodations. Even if a supervisor went beyond the requirements of the ADA, the employee has been relying on the accommodations that were provided and you don’t want to change or remove them without considering other accommodations first.
- If the supervisor removed essential functions from an employee’s job, decide whether you can still claim that the functions are essential. For example, you might consider how long the functions were removed from the employee’s job. Who was performing the functions that were removed? What burden did this place on coworkers or the supervisor? Are there others in the same position who are required to perform the functions?
- If you decide that you want the employee to resume performing the essential functions, communicate this to the employee. Then, work with the employee to determine whether you can provide accommodations that would enable the employee to perform the functions again. If you can, give the employee some time to adjust to performing the full job with accommodations and monitor progress.
- If you cannot provide accommodations that would enable the employee to perform all job functions, consider whether you can reassign the employee to a vacant position. If there is not a vacant position available, decide whether you want to continue excusing the employee from performing the essential functions until a vacancy is available.
Going forward, educate all supervisors about how to recognize an accommodation request and who to contact when an employee makes a request. Also, educate them about why keeping HR in the loop and tracking accommodations are important and the possible consequences of providing undocumented accommodations.