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Reasonable Accommodation—Maintain A Paper Trail, and Don’t Assume Anything

One of the most complex issues for employers is the definition of reasonable accommodation. Per the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, reasonable accommodation is “any change to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace.”

Evaluating disabled job candidates equitably is difficult enough, but the process can be especially hazardous when a previously healthy worker is injured and, upon return to work, can no longer perform all their prior job functions.

Per federal law, company leaders must make a reasonable effort to accommodate those limitations, and the process must be both thorough and well documented. Only after they have determined that there is no job modification that the worker can perform with his or her limitations can they terminate the worker’s employment. To avoid a negative decision that is potentially actionable, decision makers must follow specific guidelines, and consider input from a variety of sources, before making that determination.

Medical Evaluation Is Mandatory

When an employee is injured, on or off the job, the employer must require the individual to be examined by a physician to determine “fitness for duty” before allowing them to resume work. (Not doing this can cause additional problems. We’ll discuss this issue in a later article.) In some cases, the physician may determine that the worker can only resume work with limitations, such as avoiding certain activities.

A Documentation-Based Evaluation

One of the primary reference sources for reasonable accommodation should be the job description. All companies should include “essential functions” in their job descriptions—activities that workers must be able to perform in order to do their jobs. Without a list of essential functions, it can be nearly impossible for an employer to prove that inability for a worker to perform a certain activity makes them unfit for duty.

An Interactive Process

Additionally, organizations must interactively include the worker in the process of identifying a possible accommodation. As a recent court case proves, failure to do so can be very expensive. In Vetter v. Iowa, Iowa Ct. App., No. 16-0208, an Iowa appeals court awarded more than $900,000 to John Vetter, an employee with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), after the DNR determined it could not accommodate Vetter’s medical limitations without  “undue hardship.” The primary rationale for the decision was that the DNR failed to give Vetter the chance to have input in the process.

The key takeaway for employers is that requirements such as medical examinations, lists of essential functions and interactive discussions with injured workers about their post-injury outcomes may seem burdensome, but the alternative is for employers to assume considerable, unnecessary risk.

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