The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is meant to give people with disabilities equal opportunities. As part of the law, employers must make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. However, that doesn’t mean an employer must accommodate every situation or request.
Our employment law attorneys explain legal requirements for employer accommodations at work and what to do when requests are denied.
Who Must Provide Reasonable Accommodation?
The ADA requires employers who have 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations for employees, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)1. Both private and government employers are included.
What Is a Reasonable Accommodation?
A reasonable accommodation allows an employee to perform the essential functions of a job, including qualified individuals with disabilities. It applies when:
- The person meets the standard of having a disability (a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities)
- Essential functions of the job can still be performed
- The accommodation doesn’t create an undue hardship on the employer
When a person has a disability, a reasonable accommodation modifies their job duties and requirements so that the person has an equal opportunity to succeed, even with functional limitations.
The exact modification required depends on the tasks and the nature of the disability. For example, an employer has a duty to accommodate pregnant employees and make modifications to allow pregnant workers to complete their tasks. But to receive a workplace accommodation, the worker must ask for one.
When Is an Employee Request Considered Unreasonable?
What if an employer cannot accommodate work restrictions or modifications? In these situations, there must be an inquiry into whether that decision is reasonable. Employer accommodation doesn’t have to be made if it creates an undue hardship such as:
- It is too expensive
- It is extremely difficult to arrange
- It impacts production standards
- Quality is lower because of the accommodation
- The employer must provide personal items like glasses or hearing aids
- It affects the ability of the business to operate
- Essential functions are removed from the job
- Additional workload is placed on another employee
- One employee gets more paid leave than others
Employers have EEOC guidelines2 to help them determine when accommodating a request is reasonable and when it is not.
What Happens if an Employer Denied Reasonable Accommodation?
If an employer says they cannot accommodate work restrictions or requests, there are a few things you can do:
1. Make the request in writing.
It’s always a good idea to request an accommodation in writing. That creates a record that the employer received the request. You may ask the employer if there is a reason they denied the request. An employer doesn’t have to give a reason, but you can ask for one. It may be possible to reevaluate and reach an agreement.
2. File a charge.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Civil Rights Division, investigates allegations of civil rights violations, including employment discrimination. The employer may be asked to:
- Give a statement
- Submit to an inspection
- Provide information
- Participate in case mediation
3. Work with an employment attorney.
An employment attorney can help you get justice. Colorado has expansive laws allowing victims to seek pay, reinstatement, costs, other compensatory damages, punitive damages, and even attorney fees.
The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act3 and the Job Protection Civil Rights Enforcement Act4 allow you to enforce your rights. You may have representation from an experienced employment attorney throughout the process.
Can an Employer Take Away a Reasonable Accommodation?
While there are limited circumstances where an employer can take away a reasonable accommodation, they must be able to show that there is a change in circumstances behind the decision. The employer doesn’t have free reign to decide what’s reasonable. They must show that essential job functions have changed.
One example of an accommodation being taken away occurred in Bilinsky v. American Airlines, Inc., No. 18-3107 (2019)5. An employee worked from home after contracting multiple sclerosis. Then, the airline merged with another company, and administrative services were consolidated in one location, requiring face-to-face, on-site work.
The airline cited the merger as a fundamental change. They said that physical presence was now an essential job function. The court agreed, saying that the company did not have to create a new position or maintain a work structure that it did not think was appropriate in order to accommodate the disability. Whether a work-from-home arrangement is reasonable varies from case to case.
Who Has the Burden of Proof in an ADA Lawsuit?
Established by the Supreme Court, the employee with the disability only needs to show that the accommodation is reasonable. However, the burden of proof then shifts to the employer to provide specific evidence that the requested accommodation would cause undue hardship.
For example, in US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S., 122 S. Ct. 1516 (2002)6, the injured worker hurt his back while performing cargo handler duties for U.S. Airways. As a result, he requested a light-duty job that was less physical. After being given a position in the mailroom, the job was later taken away and given to another employee based on a seniority system.
The court ruled that there was not sufficient proof that altering the seniority system would present an undue hardship. U.S. Airways should have accommodated Barnett to allow him to stay in the mailroom position.
Do You Need a Reasonable Accommodations Letter From Doctor to Employer?
A reasonable accommodations letter gives an employee a written summary of their medical condition and suggests modifications that may help the person be successful in the workplace.
The letter may include:
- The care provider’s name and position
- Information about the person’s condition
- History of treatment from the care provider
- Explanation of limitations
- Suggestions for job modifications
An employer doesn’t have to accept recommendations from the person’s physician. However, a letter can be a great starting point.
How Can an Employment Lawyer Assist With a Denied Request?
Even though disability laws are well-known in the United States, many employers fail to follow them. You have a right to a reasonable accommodation that enables you to apply for or work at a job.
An employment lawyer can offer legal advice and assist you with evaluating a situation to see if the employer violated your rights by refusing your request. They can also take legal action on your behalf to enforce your rights, including compensation that you may deserve under the law.
1U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Fact Sheet: Disability Discrimination. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
2U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
3Coloado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA). Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). Retrieved 18 March 2022.
4ACLU of Colorado. HB13-1136: JOB PROTECTION CIVIL RIGHTS ENFORCEMENT ACT 2013. Retrieved 18 March 2022.