Is reassignment to a different job a reasonable accommodation?

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Question:

I suffered permanent damage to my back in a car accident last year. My doctor has released me to return to work, but my job requires lifting boxes that weigh up to 50 pounds, which I can no longer do. I've asked to be transferred to a desk position in my department. I've done this work before, so I know I can do it. Does my employer have to reassign me to the desk position? 

Answer:

It sounds like you have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for which you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Whether you have the right to transfer to a different job depends on whether any positions are open and how your employer handles job openings, among other things. Here are the rules:

Typically, an employee is considered "qualified" for a job under the ADA only if he or she can perform the job's essential functions, with or without accommodation. However, the ADA also says that reassignment to a different position might be a reasonable accommodation, if an employee can't do the current job. Like all reasonable accommodations, transfer is required only if it would not create undue hardship. 

An employee is entitled to reassignment as a reasonable accommodation only if there is an open position, for which the employee is qualified, and which would not disrupt the employer's seniority system.

  • Open position: A position is open if it is currently vacant or the employer knows that it will be available within a reasonable time period (for example, because the employee holding the position has given notice). 
  • Qualified for the position. An employee is qualified if he or she satisfies the necessary prerequisites for the open job (education, licensing, and so on) and can perform its essential functions, with or without accommodation. The employer isn't required to help the employee become qualified, unless it does so for other employees who accept the position. For example, the employer need not help the employee obtain the necessary license for the job if other applicants are required to have that license when they apply. 
  • Seniority system. If the employer would have to make an exception to its seniority system of filling open positions in order to reassign the employee, the employee is not entitled to the transfer. However, this is true only if the employer has been consistent in its use of the system, so employees have an established expectation that jobs will be filled on the basis of seniority. An employer that makes frequent exceptions to its seniority system might be required to make another exception to offer a job to an employee with a disability who needs a transfer. 

As you can see, the facts of your workplace dictate whether you are entitled to a transfer. Is there a desk job available? Do you hold all the necessary qualifications for the job? And, would putting you in the job require the employer to upend an established, consistently applied seniority system? The answers to these questions will determine whether your employer is required to reassign you as a reasonable accommodation for your disability. 

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