When employees request certain workplace accommodations, it can be difficult for employers to determine when a “reasonable accommodation” request is made, who is “disabled” under the law, and what requests must be accommodated. For instance, if an employee requests a standing desk to avoid discomfort from prolonged sitting, does the law require the company to provide it? Must an employee with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) be allowed to bring his support dog to work?
The answer to these and other trending accommodation requests depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the business, existence of an impairment or specific medical condition, and the needs of the individual applicant or employee. If the request involves an employee’s medical condition, then Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will often govern the employer’s obligations.
The ADA is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. All employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, must comply with the ADA. The law requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified applicant or employee, unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business. Undue hardship generally involves significant difficulty or expense, in light of an employer’s size, financial resources, and the nature of its operations.
Once a “reasonable accommodation request” has been made, the employer must initiate the interactive process between the individual, the employer, and, if warranted, the individual’s health care provider, to determine what accommodations may be needed and its potential impact on the business. Employers should document this process. Companies who deny requests for reasonable accommodations must be prepared to demonstrate the undue hardship that would result by accommodating the employee.
Returning to two examples of trending workplace accommodation requests, here’s what employers should consider:
Adjustable standing desks are becoming increasingly popular in the workplace. If an employee requests such a desk only to be less sedentary or for general wellness reasons, the request would not likely require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Instead, the employer maintains the discretion to do so. If, however, the employee informs his employer of a specific impairment or health problem, such as chronic back or neck pain, the employer would be obligated to initiate the interactive process with the employee to learn more about the medical condition, and what accommodations may be necessary for the employee to perform their work. In most cases, providing a standing desk to a qualified applicant or employee with a disability would not likely pose an undue hardship for the employer.
Service Animals vs. Support Animals
Requests to bring service animals or emotional “support” animals to work appear to be increasing. Because Title I of the ADA is silent on these animals in the workplace, employers face uncertainty when handling such requests. Nevertheless, employers should be aware of the distinction between service animals and support animals.
A “service animal” is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled individual. The task(s) performed by the dog must relate to the person’s disability. (e.g., guide dog for the blind, etc.) Service animals are working animals, not pets. The ADA does not automatically require employers to allow employees to bring service animals into the workplace, but a request to do so must be handled as any other reasonable accommodation request under the ADA. In most cases, if the individual’s disability requires a “service animal,” permitting the service animal in the workplace would constitute a reasonable accommodation.
In contrast, a “support” animal is generally defined as a companion animal that provides a therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric condition. Support animals are not required to undergo training to perform a specific task. Moreover, they are not limited to dogs. Employers do not have to allow an employee to bring an animal into the workplace if it is not needed because of a disability or if it is disruptive to the workplace. Employers should nonetheless respond to requests regarding support animals like they do with any other ADA accommodation request.
A lawsuit filed by the EEOC is currently pending against an interstate trucking company over whether the company must allow a truck driver to have a service dog ride along to provide emotional support as an accommodation for his PTSD disability. The case is scheduled for trial in federal court in Iowa on November 5, 2018. It may ultimately provide clarification to this gray area in the law.
Other non-disability laws may also require workplace accommodations upon request. Take nursing mothers, for example. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires most employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has a need to express the milk.” Employers must also provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” Smaller businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the FLSA break time requirement if the employer can demonstrate that compliance would impose an “undue hardship.” An employee who is not covered by the FLSA may still be entitled to nursing mother breaks under certain state laws, which may apply to all employees. Arizona has no specific law at the state level for workplace breastfeeding rights.
State laws may also extend additional workplace accommodation rights to disabled employees. In Arizona, the Arizona Civil Rights Act (ACRA) also covers employers with 15 or more employees and provides protections to disabled workers consistent with the ADA.
When evaluating accommodation requests, employers should carefully review the pertinent legal definitions and/or consult with an employment attorney to ensure compliance with applicable federal and state laws.