The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer with 15 or more employees to provide “effective reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities unless providing the accommodation would impose undue hardship or a direct threat to the health or safety of the employee or others. Employers are required by the ADA to engage in an “interactive process” with employees to determine what “effective reasonable accommodations” for the employees will be.
Generally, an employee must request an accommodation to trigger the interactive process. The request can be oral or written, and the employee does not need to use any “magic” language. The employee only needs to request a change or adjustment in the workplace and connect that request with his or her disability.
Upon receiving the request for accommodation, the employer is not required to provide the exact accommodation requested but must engage with the employee in the interactive process to determine the appropriate accommodation under the circumstances. Courts have characterized the interactive process as bringing the employee and employer together in cooperation to identify the employee’s precise limitations and discuss accommodations that might enable the employee to continue working. It is important for employers to recognize that the interactive process is a process, not a one-off event. If the interactive process fails to lead to reasonable accommodation, responsibility lies with the party that caused the breakdown in the process. Employers can face liability if they do not engage in the interactive process in good faith.
Employers must also recognize that effective accommodations can change rapidly. If a previously granted accommodation is no longer effective to enable the employee to continue working, the employer must re-engage in the interactive process and potentially provide a different accommodation. Employers should not become confrontational or adversarial if an employee requests a different accommodation. If an employee files a lawsuit alleging an ADA violation for failure to engage in the interactive process, courts generally look favorably upon an employer’s good faith efforts and willingness to maintain an open line of communication with an employee while engaging in the interactive process.
Due to the complexities of the ADA and the interactive process, it is important to consult with an experienced employment law attorney if you are faced with a situation involving an employee’s request for effective reasonable accommodations.