The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to help employees with disabilities perform their jobs. Not every employee is entitled to an accommodation, however. And, not every accommodation is considered reasonable under the ADA. An employer need not provide an accommodation that would create an undue burden on the company.
Reasonable accommodations take many forms, from enlarging bathrooms stalls to accommodate a wheelchair to providing TDD equipment to allow a person with impaired hearing to communicate by phone. Time off work may also be a reasonable accommodation. However, the ADA doesn't require employers to give unlimited leave to someone with a disability.
Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. Only qualified employees with disabilities are entitled to accommodation. An employee is qualified if:
A reasonable accommodation is assistance (technological or otherwise) or a change to the workplace or job that allows the employee to perform its essential functions. Examples include providing voice-recognition software for an employee with carpal tunnel syndrome; altering the height of a desk for an employee in a wheelchair; providing a distraction-free environment for an employee with attention deficit disorder; or allowing a diabetic employee to take more frequent breaks to eat, drink, take medication, or test blood sugar levels.
Once an employee requests an accommodation, the employer and the employee must talk and work together to see whether a reasonable accommodation is possible. The employer doesn't have to grant the particular accommodation an employee requests, as long as the employer works with the employee to find an effective accommodation. For example, if an employee requests a very expensive accommodation, the employer may provide a less costly solution, as long as it allows the employee to perform the job.
An employer does not have to provide an accommodation if doing so would create an undue hardship. Whether an accommodation creates an undue hardship depends on a number of factors, including:
An accommodation that would be extremely costly could well be an undue hardship. Even a less expensive modification could be an undue hardship, if it would change the nature of the business. For example, even if it would be relatively cheap to install bright lighting in a previously dimly lit, romantic restaurant, that change would fundamentally alter the character of the business in way that could be an undue hardship.
An employee with a disability might need leave from work as an accommodation. For example, an employee with a disability might need time off for surgery, intensive cancer treatment, rehabilitation for substance abuse, or a long period of rest following a serious injury.
Whether an employer has to offer such time off as a reasonable accommodation depends, ultimately, on whether it would create an undue hardship. Here are some things courts have considered when deciding whether leave constitutes a reasonable accommodation.
An employee who is covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is entitled to up to 12 weeks of leave per year for his or her own serious health condition, among other reasons. So, an employee whose disability also qualifies as a serious health condition under the FMLA may be entitled to take 12 weeks off to recuperate. (Learn much more about the FMLA, including what counts as a serious health condition, at our FMLA page.)
An employee who is unable to return to work after using up the 12 weeks of FMLA leave may be entitled to more time off as a reasonable accommodation. The employee's entitlement depends on whether additional leave would create an undue hardship, considering the factors listed above. For example, an employee who needs a couple of additional weeks off to recover from surgery might be entitled to that leave as a reasonable accommodation, particularly if the employer has granted lengthy leaves for other purposes. However, an employee who is unable to do the job following FMLA leave, and doesn't know whether or if it will ever be possible to return to work, is almost certainly not entitled to take open-ended time off as an accommodation.