In his beloved book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss writes about “The Waiting Place” — an imaginary (or perhaps not) place in life where everyone is waiting for something:
“Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go, or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow, or waiting around for a Yes or No…”
In my experience, it seems that employers sometimes feel stuck in this very place when medical information is requested after an employee makes a request for accommodation, during the early stage of the interactive accommodation process.
Medical information isn’t always needed when an accommodation is requested. But, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when the impairment and need for accommodation are not known or obvious, employers do have the right to request documentation that verifies the existence of an impairment; that the impairment affects a major life activity; and that the impairment is substantially limiting in some way. There is no required procedure for employers to follow, or medical certification form that must be used to obtain medical information for ADA purposes. Also, there is no ADA-required time frame for employees to obtain medical information requested by an employer after a request for accommodation. This, in some situations, leads those engaged in the interactive process to…the waiting place.
There are ways to detour the waiting place. One way is to have a comprehensive reasonable accommodation policy that serves as a step-by-step guide for the interactive process and includes time frames for each step — time frames that apply to both the employer and the individual with the disability. As part of the process, employers often require individuals to complete “ADA paperwork” – employer-created documents used to gather information about the individual’s impairment and need for accommodation. This paperwork often includes a request for medical information to support an individual’s request for accommodation. The ADA does not regulate the amount of time employees may take to respond to a request for medical information, and so, an expected return date is a detail that really should be included in a reasonable accommodation policy or procedure, and also on the ADA paperwork.
How much time should an individual be allowed to return ADA paperwork and/or to provide a note from a healthcare provider? Because there is no required time frame under the ADA, I often suggest that employers use the same time frame that applies under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under the FMLA, employers must allow employees at least fifteen calendar days to obtain the required medical certification (USDOL, 2013). Employees who provide incomplete information should be advised why the certification is incomplete and then allowed a reasonable opportunity to remedy the insufficiency — seven calendar days, for example. Of course, under ADA, the timeframe is up to the employer’s discretion, but this is a sensible place to start and allows time for the individual to meet with his or her healthcare provider. Sometimes, it’s not feasible for the individual to arrange an appointment to see a specialist in this amount of time and exceptions may be necessary. If the employee is making a concerted effort to obtain the required information, take this into consideration.
When there are no time frames, it can be difficult to avoid the waiting place, and this often leads to frustration about how to proceed in the interactive process. So, what can be done to avoid being stuck in the waiting place? Consider the following:
- Request that medical information be provided within a reasonable time frame. Provide an actual deadline. For example, fifteen calendar days after the employer’s initial request.
- Communicate with the employee shortly before the deadline (e.g., five days) to remind the employee, in writing, that the deadline to provide the requested information is approaching.
- If the deadline is not met (even after a reminder), issue a notice that explains that sufficient medical information/completed paperwork was not received and is necessary to proceed with the interactive process. Explain why the information is needed. Consider extending the deadline five more days, or for an appropriate number of days given the specific circumstances (e.g., individual has an appointment with his or her healthcare provider after the specified deadline).
- As a practical matter, when the impairment and need for accommodation are known or obvious, consider focusing on gathering detailed information about the requested accommodation, rather than asking for unnecessary medical information. When medical information is necessary, ask specific job-related medical questions about the individual’s limitations, ability to perform job duties, and need for accommodation, to make the process of obtaining information more efficient. Simply sending the employee to a healthcare provider with a job description will not yield the most useful information. Address the specific work-related issues in order to obtain sufficient information in a timely manner.
- If an accommodation cannot be provided without the requested medical information, because the disability is not known or obvious, it is possible to close or deny a request for accommodation due to failure to receive the necessary medical information. Notify the employee, in writing, why the request was closed or denied.
If the individual’s accommodation request is closed or denied for failing to provide the information, he or she may submit another request at any time. Under the ADA, an individual with a disability may request a reasonable accommodation at any time during the period of employment because the duty to provide reasonable accommodation is an ongoing one (EEOC, 2002). According to the EEOC, if an individual’s disability and need for reasonable accommodation are not obvious, and he or she refuses to provide the reasonable documentation requested by the employer, then he or she will not be entitled to reasonable accommodation (EEOC, 2002).
For more information about requesting medical information under the ADA, please contact JAN to speak with a Consultant, or go to AskJAN.org and see the A-Z of Disabilities and Accommodations section, under the topic of Medical Exams and Inquiries.
U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. (2013). Fact Sheet #28G: Certification of a Serious Health Condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Retrieved May 12, 2016, from https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28g.pdf
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2002). Enforcement guidance on reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved May 12, 2016, from http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html