Jumping Through Hoops for Accommodations Isn’t Always Sustainable

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stands firm against discrimination toward employees with disabilities, codifying the obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to those who can carry out the essential functions of their job. What is considered “reasonable” isn’t always clear. Generally, if the accommodation causes the employer “undue hardship,” there needs to be some sort of middle-ground where the employer maintains daily operations and the rights of the employee remain protected. Sometimes, this means exploring an unpaid leave of absence.

When Do Accommodations Cause More Harm Than Good?

Undue hardship arises when providing reasonable accommodation becomes excessively burdensome for employers. This hinges on a tailored assessment of circumstances, demonstrating that a specific accommodation results in substantial difficulty or expense. Factors include accommodation cost, employer finances, workforce size, facility resources, and more.

If one accommodation is excessively burdensome but another viable option exists, the latter must be offered. However, undue hardship can’t be based on discriminatory fears or morale concerns. For example, if your employees react negatively to the nature of a disabled employee’s accommodations, this cannot be classified as undue hardship. It’s a fine line to walk, which can add to the existing stress of running a business. 

Unpaid Leave As a Viable Alternative

In specific scenarios, an unpaid leave of absence can become a plausible accommodation to offer. If an employee’s disability or injuries prevent them from executing their vital job functions, and the employer has no way of providing alternatives, sometimes the employee simply needs an opportunity to fully recover.

A recent ruling by the Fourth Circuit underscores this principle. The case involved a UPS truck driver who was injured while on duty. The truck he was assigned to drive aggravated his injuries due to its “rough” suspension. He requested a smaller truck with a gentler suspension or a different role altogether. UPS determined, however, that the tasks could not be completed with the use of a smaller vehicle and could not offer an office position within a 30-mile radius.

UPS proposed that the employee take an unpaid leave of absence until he was fully recovered and able to resume his original responsibilities. The employee originally agreed to this and returned to work after recovering, but he then took UPS to court believing that it did not make a good enough effort to accommodate his injuries. The Fourth Circuit wound up siding with UPS because the employee did not demonstrate “reasonableness” in his requests for accommodation. 

Being Proactive

Under certain conditions, an unpaid leave of absence may qualify as a reasonable accommodation within the ADA framework, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a blanket option. If suitable and reasonable accommodations can be made, the employer is still obligated to make them under the ADA. Navigating the process of determining what might work best can be difficult, and consulting with an experienced employment attorney can help you determine your safest course of action. At Integrated General Counsel, P.C., we assist employers with conundrums like this daily. Call (925) 399-1529 today to schedule your free initial consultation today.

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