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What You Need to Know About “Reasonable Accommodations” By Claire M. Midili, Staff Writer

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Federal and State laws obligate employers to provide reasonable accommodations to people with different disabilities in the workplace. By knowing these obligations, workers with disabilities can seek the protections they are entitled to and employers can avoid liability.  After telling you about the law, I’ll give you a “real-life” situation that happened in New Jersey.

Americans with Disabilities Act

Under Federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections in critical areas of society to individuals with disabilities, physical, mental, or emotional. Specifically in the workplace, the ADA bars employers from discriminating against qualified individuals due to disability. The ADA also requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace for employees with disabilities, so long as the accommodations would not impose an undue hardship on the business. The ADA generally applies to private, state government, and local government employers that have at least fifteen employees. For someone with a disability to qualify for these employment protections, he or she must have the qualifications needed for the job and they must be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

The ADA defines “disability” to include physical and mental impairments that substantially limit at least one major life activity for a person. The ADA does not provide a definitive list of “disabilities” but some conditions that have met the definition include: blindness, epilepsy, mobility impairments, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA is generally understood to be some change in the workplace that enables equal employment opportunities to someone with a disability. This is determined on a case-by-case basis, but some examples include: making the work facilities more accessible, restructuring the job, and allowing a change in work schedule.

Generally, an employer’s obligation to reasonably accommodate is prompted by a request for such an accommodation. This request, or notice, may come directly from the person seeking the accommodation or it may come from a third-party acting on behalf of the individual. Such notice can be done through written or oral communication and no specific forms are required by the ADA to be completed. It should be supported by a doctor’s note.

Once a request is submitted, the employer and the employee must work together in good faith to determine and implement a reasonable accommodation. During this process, the employee  requesting the accommodation has an obligation to provide the employer with sufficient information about the disability so that a reasonable accommodation can be determined. On the other hand, the employer has an obligation to explore accommodation options and then provide a reasonable accommodation.

If the employer fails to accommodate under the ADA, the employee may seek enforcement, at first by a letter or lawyer’s letter, by establishing four factors. The individual must show: (1) that they have a disability under the ADA; (2) that their employer had notice of this disability; (3) that they could perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodations; and (4) that their employer refused to make reasonable accommodations.

Under the ADA, an employer may avoid reasonably accommodating a workers disability by showing that such accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the business. The considerations in determining whether there would be an undue hardship include: the nature and cost of the accommodation, the size of the business, the type of operation of the business, and the impact of the accommodation on the operation of the facility.  Excessive cost, substantial scope, and major disruption are examples of undue hardship.

New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination

In addition to the federal protections under the ADA, New Jersey provides similar coverage under its Law Against Discrimination (LAD). This law prohibits unlawful employment discrimination, including on the basis of disability. Although the LAD does not specifically address reasonable accommodations, New Jersey courts have applied the law to require that employers reasonably accommodate employee disabilities. The State has also implemented regulations detailing reasonable accommodation requirements, which are similar to those under the ADA.

Consider the following.

An employee and her spouse contracted Covid at the height of the pandemic and both were hospitalized. This person remained hospitalized for weeks in a room secured by plastic sheeting. While hospitalized, she witnessed two roommates die from Covid. More tragically, her husband and nearly twenty relatives and friends perished from Covid. As a result of these traumatic experiences, the person now suffers from PTSD that is especially triggered by risks of Covid exposure.

Upon returning to work, her office building had not been outfitted with partitions or plexiglass barriers to prevent contact with the public, even though all other buildings within the organization had been. Despite her requests for partitions to be installed and her employer’s promises, it was never done. Her PTSD was unfortunately, but repeatedly, triggered and she actually contracted Covid for a second time, which aggravated her immense stress even more.

PTSD is a recognized disability under the ADA and this person was qualified for reasonable accommodations in her workplace. The employer was aware of her disability and had received her request for reasonable accommodations. The specific accommodation request was for the employer simply to place plexiglass barriers to prevent contact with the public. This was a reasonable accommodation because it did not impose an undue hardship on the employer, who had installed partitions in all other departments of the organization. This employer failed to fulfill its obligations.

Claire Midili is a second-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law, where she is an Associate Editor for the Law Review.

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