Federal Laws require the Federal Government to provide what is known as “reasonable accommodations”, for those employees who are qualified to perform the “essential functions” of their position, either with or without accommodations. What that means to you, the Federal Employee, is that your Agency must provide you with an accommodation if you meet certain criteria. Such as:
- You suffer from a disability or a disabling condition.
To support a request for reasonable accommodation, the employee must present medical evidence to establish that he or she, in fact, do suffer from a disability or disabling condition. The burden to establish this is on you, the employee. Merely stating you have a disability will not meet your burden in proving this. Credible medical evidence must be provided. Sometimes, the disability and accommodation needed will be obvious. Other times, an employer may need to ask questions concerning the individual’s disability. When a disability is not obvious, an employer may ask the individual for documentation about his or her disability and limitations and an explanation of the workplace barrier that exists. An employee cannot refuse to provide such documentation under the guise of privacy.
- You can perform the essential functions of your position once the accommodation has been provided.
An employee who asks for a reasonable accommodation, must be able to establish that they can perform the “essential functions” of the position with or without accommodation. That is, if the employee is still unable to perform some of the key functions of the position, even with reasonable accommodations, then the Agency can successfully argue that they don’t have to provide the requested accommodations requested. Therefore, an employee should make sure that his or her medical documentation does not preclude them from doing any of the positions “essential functions”, even if reasonable accommodations are provided.
- You request a reasonable accommodation.
Reasonable accommodations may be requested, not only by regular full-time employees, but also by an applicant for employment, a short-term employee, a part-time employee, or a probationary employee. A reasonable accommodation is something that removes a workplace barrier for an individual with a disability. Barriers can include: physical obstacles, an inaccessible work location, inaccessible equipment modes of communication, materials only in written form, instructions only in oral form and procedures or rules about when and how work is performed. A request must be; (i) “reasonable” – i.e., plausible on its face or feasible; (ii) effective – i.e. it must enable the requesting individual to participate in the application process, perform the essential functions of the job, or enjoy equal access to the benefits and privileges of employment, thus effectively overcoming the identified workplace barrier, and; (iii) it can’t impose an undue hardship on the covered entity’s operations (burden to prove this is on the Agency).
An employer may not punish an individual for failing to ask for a reasonable accommodation that the individual had no way of knowing she or he needed, as long as the individual asks for the accommodation, as soon as the need becomes apparent to the individual. To request an accommodation, an individual may use “plain English” and need not use the phrase “reasonable accommodation”. For example, if an employee tells her supervisor, “I’m having trouble getting to work at my scheduled starting time because of medical treatments I’m undergoing, this constitutes a request for a reasonable accommodation. Or, if an employee tells his supervisor, “I need six weeks off to get treatment for a back problem”, this is too constitutes a request for a reasonable accommodation. However, if an employee tells his supervisor that he would like a new chair because his present one is uncomfortable, this statement would be insufficient to put the employer on notice that he is requesting reasonable accommodation. That is because he has not linked his need for the new chair with a medical condition, so this is not a request for accommodation.
- Providing the accommodation will not cause the Agency an “undue hardship”.
An employer is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation if doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operations of the employer. An undue hardship is defined as a “significant difficulty or expense.” Congress intended the undue hardship standard to be an individualized, assessment that focuses on the resources and circumstances of the particular employer — in relationship to the cost or difficulty of providing an accommodation. Undue hardship includes both financial & operational impacts on the specific facility at issue. For financial impact, the employee should look at the resources of the covered entity and any outside resources available to the entity. A large dollar cost for the accommodation, will not protect the Agency from providing the request, if the Agency’s budget is large. An Agency budget of millions of dollars delegated for construction or office renovations may be used as evidence that an Agency has funds to provide a requested accommodation.
- The Interactive Process.
After an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employee and his Agency must enter into the “interactive process”. A request for a reasonable accommodation is the first step in an informal, interactive process between the individual and the employer. While the individual with a disability does not have to specify the precise accommodation, they do need to describe the problems posed by the workplace barrier. The interactive process should encompass all of the steps in the reasonable accommodation analysis mentioned above. Parties should determine the workplace barrier, think through the accommodations available to overcome the barrier, and come to an agreement on a reasonable accommodation that does not impose an undue hardship. This process is an ongoing process which continues through the period of time that reasonable accommodation is requested. Today, almost every Agency has a “Reasonable Accommodation Committee”. This is a group of experts in different areas who are qualified to determine if the requested accommodation should be granted. Generally a medical professional and a human resources specialist will be part of the committee. If an Agency fails to comply with the findings of the Reasonable Accommodation Committee, this would be evidence that could be used against them in an EEO Complaint.