Is an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation limited to just making sure that your employees can do the essential job functions?
In a recent case filed by EEOC, an employee who was deaf worked as a material handler (picking prepackaged products and sending them to a pack station) for a global corporation. His primary language was American Sign Language (ASL). The lawsuit challenged the company’s failure to provide him with an ASL interpreter for all of the numerous meetings that he was required to attend--some occurring daily, some weekly, some monthly, some quarterly, and some "as needed.")
The company said it provided ASL interpreters for many meetings (40 in 3 years), written notes and handouts of the content covered for other meetings, and opportunities for the employee to meet one-on-one with his supervisor to ask questions by writing notes. The company argued that these accommodations enabled the employee to perform all of the essential functions of his position because the employee had: never been disciplined; a good safety record; and received every merit increase for which he was eligible.
We all know an employer, absent proof of "undue hardship," is obligated to provide modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position.
But the ADA requires that accommodations do more than simply allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. The accommodations must also permit the employee to have "full access to the benefits and privileges of employment" as are enjoyed by other employees without disabilities. In this case, the EEOC asserted that this requirement was not satisfied because this deaf employee seldom understood what was going on in meetings; he was unable to do more than guess at how to do his job; and, as a result, he experienced frustration and anger to the point that he became sick from the stress.
EEOC won this case. As a result, Springboard encourages employers, in assessing whether an accommodation is reasonable, to consider not only whether the accommodation enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, but also whether it lets the employee also enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities. This includes access to break rooms, training opportunities, ability to interact during staff meetings, emergency preparedness drills, etc.
It should also be noted that the undue hardship defense should not be taken lightly. The court rejected the company’s claim that the $50,000/year expense to provide an ASL interpreter for all meetings and the substantial administrative difficulties due to the irregular scheduling of many of the meetings was an undue hardship. Video remote interpretation through video conferencing, without advance scheduling, can be a more cost effective option, reducing the undue hardship on the company to provide an appropriate reasonable accommodation for a valuable employee. Next time you're faced with a challenging situation, talk to your employee. This "interactive dialogue" done in good faith, can often result in a win/win solution that is cost effective, helps retain a valuable employee, and creates a work culture that promotes job satisfaction.
Manager, ADA Hotline & Corporate Training
This information should not be construed as "legal advice" for a particular set of facts or circumstances. It is intended only to be a practical guide for participants familiar with this subject. Users should seek appropriate legal advice tailored to address their specific situation.