Accommodation Delayed is Not (Necessarily) Accommodation Denied

Posted on: July 25, 2019 0

By Robb McDonald and Marti Cardi, Vice President Product Compliance

July 25, 2019

 

 “This is a case about a civil servant’s dissatisfaction with the government’s sluggishness in accommodating her disability. While delay is no doubt frustrating, it is not, in this case, unlawful.”

So starts the opinion in Weatherspoon v. Price, a case decided recently by the federal court in the District of Columbia.

What Happened?

Monique Weatherspoon was (and, as far as we know, still is!) employed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  She suffers from uveitis, a sensitivity to light which makes it difficult for her to travel to her office and to read her computer screen.  Over time the Department granted a multitude of accommodations.  Try these on for size:

  • Starting in 2011 and for the next few years, the Department permitted Weatherspoon to work from home
    1-2 days per week and also to work from home as needed due to her condition.
  • In 2015, Weatherspoon’s condition deteriorated and she requested a laptop with an oversize screen. Instead,
    the Department offered to provide a docking station and large monitor for home set up.
  • Weatherspoon took medical leave in November and December 2015.
  • In early 2016, the Department advised Weatherspoon that the docking station and monitor were available
    for pickup. Weatherspoon cancelled several appointments with IT to test and pick up the equipment.
    Once she picked up the equipment, Weatherspoon indicated that she had trouble using it.
  • The Department’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) suggested that a software
    program, ZoomText, might be helpful and provided Weatherspoon with a trial version. Weatherspoon
    advised the Department that the software was not helping.
  • In May 2016, Weatherspoon requested 100% telework as an accommodation. The Department denied
    the request, but did permit telework for 2 days per week, and episodic telework as necessitated by her
    condition. The Department never denied a request by Weatherspoon for episodic telecommuting.
  • After further in-person assessment, the CAP provided Weatherspoon different ZoomText software and
    a larger laptop. Weatherspoon picked up the equipment in December 2016 when she went to the office
    for the holiday party.

Apparently, this equipment and the telecommuting arrangement were successful in enabling Weatherspoon to perform her job.  Nonetheless, these efforts were not satisfactory to Weatherspoon.  She sued the Department for “failing to reasonably and effectively accommodate” her disability.

Side note.  OK, a little detail here.  Weatherspoon sued the Department under the federal Rehabilitation Act, not the ADA.  The Rehab Act is substantially similar to the ADA but applies to federal employers and employees, while the ADA applies to pretty much all other employers and employees.  The principles, the employer’s obligations, and the employee’s rights are the same.  So in general, a lesson learned in a Rehab Act case also applies to employers covered by the ADA.

The Tortoise, Not the Hare

Weatherspoon alleged that lengthy delays (she claimed 17 months) in providing accommodations were tantamount to a denial of her request.  The court acknowledged that in some cases, a long-delayed accommodation could be considered unreasonable and hence a violation of the ADA/Rehab Act but here, no single accommodation request took more than 3-4 months to resolve – and always ended with the Department providing Weatherspoon with an accommodation.  Moreover, many factors contributing to the delays were beyond the control of the Department.  For example, Weatherspoon took an extended period of medical leave during the request period, cancelled multiple meetings, and delayed in picking up the offered equipment.  The court also noted that it can take weeks or months to analyze and procure proper technology such as specialized software and computer equipment.  And, when dealing with a government entity, movement is “more tortoise-like than hare-like . . . But that’s just business as usual, not evidence of discrimination.”

The Interactive Process – Keep it Going!

As we know, it is important to engage in the interactive process when evaluating an accommodation request, and this requires “flexible give-and-take” between the employer and employee. In this case, Weatherspoon’s supervisor was in regular communication and dialogue with her.  There was also a great deal of communication among Weatherspoon, her supervisor, and 5 additional persons or entities within the Department to assess and meet her needs.  In light of this and the number of attempted and suggested accommodations, the court held that the Department participated in the interactive process in good faith and did not violate the Rehab Act due to the delays in reaching final accommodations.

Pings for Employers

  1. Engage in the interactive process with regular communication and dialogue. Don’t be responsible for
    a breakdown in the process.  According to the Court, “To determine whether the employer held up its end
    of the bargain, courts look to factors such as whether the employer obstructs or delays the interactive process
    or fails to communicate, by way of initiation or response.”  In this case, the Department kept the process
    going to conclusion with some effective accommodations.
  2. So don’t be responsible for unreasonable delays. Weatherspoon did indeed experience delays in obtaining
    effective accommodations.  One wonders whether a private employer would have received the leniency this
    court showed to the Department as a government entity!  You don’t want to be the test case!
  3. Offer alternative accommodations in appropriate circumstances. You do not have to approve an employee’s
    preferred accommodation when there is another effective accommodation that better suits your business needs.
    In this case the Department offered Weatherspoon different specialized equipment than what she requested and
    also pushed back on her request for full-time telecommuting by offering 2 days per week plus other days as
    needed. Just be sure that the alternative offered is effective to enable the employee to perform her essential
    functions.
  4. If you can’t find a reasonable, effective accommodation, a robust interactive process will still serve you well.
    If you engage in dialog with the employee and consider various options, but none enable the employee to
    perform her essential functions without undue hardship, you have fulfilled your ADA obligations.  (But don’t
    forget your duty to consider reassignment, the accommodation of last resort! See our prior blog posts on
    reassignment
    here and here.)
  5. Document the interactions meticulously. Especially in an extended situation like this one, it would be difficult
    after the fact to recreate accurately all the interactions that support your position.

MATRIX CAN HELP!  Through our ADA Advantage, Matrix offers administration and management of employee requests for accommodations.  We manage it all, from intake and medical documentation through the final accommodation decision and follow-up.  We manage and document the interactive  process so you don’t have to worry about those Pings above.  You retain control over the final decision but we help you get there effectively and in compliance with the ADA.  If you want to learn more about our ADA services, contact your Matrix/Reliance Standard account manager or send us a message at ping@matrixcos.com.

With this blog post we welcome a new contributor, Robert McDonald, J.D., Ph.D. Robb has been with Matrix Absence Management since 2017 and serves as Vice President of Learning & Development. In this capacity Robb is responsible for course development and instruction to all Matrix employees nationwide.

KENTUCKY PASSES LAW REQUIRING REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS FOR PREGNANT EMPLOYEES

Posted on: May 14, 2019 0

By Gail Cohen, Director Employment Law & Compliance

May 14, 2019

 

On April 9, 2019, the Governor of Kentucky signed Senate Bill 18, making it the latest state to pass legislation requiring employers, absent undue hardship, to grant reasonable accommodation(s) to employees with “limitations” as a result of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. The Kentucky Pregnant Worker’s Accommodations Act (“KPWA”), takes effect June 27, 2019, and applies to employers with fifteen or more employees in the state.

Let’s break it down:

What is a “Limitation” as a Result of Pregnancy, Childbirth or Related Condition? The KPWA does not use the term disability or disabled by pregnancy, etc. as do many state laws in effect. For that matter, normal pregnancy is not a disability under the ADA. The term “limitation” is not defined by the Act but appears to indicate broader coverage than the ADA. Therefore, Kentucky employers should engage in the interactive discussion with regard to the KPWA, even if the nature and duration of the employee’s “limitations” and condition would not otherwise require doing so under the ADA.

What Are Reasonable Accommodation(s)? The act provides a nonexclusive list of potential reasonable accommodations, including:

  • frequent or longer break times;
  • time off to recover from childbirth;
  • acquiring or modifying equipment;
  • seating;
  • temporary transfer to a less strenuous or less hazardous job;
  • job restructuring, light duty, and/or modified work schedule;
  • and a private space (that is not a bathroom) in which to express breast milk.

What about Undue Hardship? The KPWA provides for an employer to decline to provide accommodation if doing so poses an “undue hardship” and includes the traditional types of factors we have seen with similar statutes, i.e. significant difficulty or expense given the size and financial resources of the organization. In addition to those traditional factors, the KPWA provides for additional factors when an employee requests accommodation for her pregnancy, childbirth, etc. For example, the duration of the requested accommodation, and whether similar accommodations are required by policy to be made (or have been made) for other employees for any reason. The latter factor, of course, should look familiar to any employer who knows and complies with the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Unlawful Employment Practices. Absent undue hardship, the KPWA rules failing to make reasonable accommodation(s) as unlawful employment practices. Like many other state pregnancy accommodation laws, Kentucky’s prohibits requiring an employee to take a leave of absence if another reasonable accommodation can be provided and requires the employer and employee to engage in a timely, good faith and interactive process to determine effective, reasonable accommodations.

Employer Posting and Notice Requirements. Employers are required to conspicuously post notice of an employee’s right to, among other things, reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. Employers are also required to provide written notice to new employees when they begin employment and to existing employees within thirty days of the Act’s effective date, June 27, 2019.

Want to learn more?

Join Matrix Radar authors Marti Cardi and Gail Cohen for a practical discussion of the various state laws providing protections for pregnant employees and new parents, and a review of the EEOC’s focus on employers who get it wrong. The webinar, sponsored by the DMEC, will take place June 18, 2019 at 12 noon Eastern (9 AM Pacific). Click here for more information and to register.

 

Matrix can help!  At Matrix Absence Management, we administer FMLA, state leaves, the ADA, and related company policies for employers every day, day in and day out.  If you would like more information contact us at ping@matrix.com or through your Account Manager.

Spice up your compliance with 50 Shades of FMLA!

Posted on: March 4, 2019 0

Are you struggling to manage FMLA gray areas such as intermittent leave or suspicious leave requests from employees?

The 2019 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference, May 6-9, in Portland, OR, is the place to find answers and solutions that help you minimize risk in your organization and ensure you’re on the path towards ongoing compliance.

Our very own Marti Cardi, together with Jeff Nowak, will help you “color in” those gray areas of FMLA compliance. Read their recent blog post to get a peek under the covers of their general session, 50 Shades of FMLA: Dealing with Those Gray Areas.

This session is just one of many that will prepare you to confidently tackle your organization’s FMLA/ADA challenges. Check out the list of sessions and speakers online.

Early registration ends on Mar. 7. Don’t miss the chance to save $200! Secure your spot today.

 

 

Matrix Compliance Experts Take the Stage!

Posted on: December 11, 2018 0

Matrix’s Gail Cohen Co-Presents with EEOC Counsel at DMEC Webinar

By Gail Cohen, Director, Employment Law/Compliance

I had the privilege of presenting last week with Chris Kuczynski, Assistant Legal Counsel of the EEOC in Washington D.C. on “EEOC Insights into What Employers Still Get Wrong about the ADA.” The presentation was a webinar through the Disability Management Employer Coalition (“DMEC”).

In putting our materials together, Chris and I identified four ADA issues
that seem to be particularly challenging to employers. For those who
were unable to attend, here are the four topics we covered and key
best practice pointers we discussed:

  • Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation: Courts have often
    sided with employers who deny telework as an accommodation on
    the basis that the job requires teamwork and/or face-to-face
    collaboration with clients and/or colleagues. But beware! The
    EEOC will challenge employers who cannot demonstrate that
    this is truly an essential job function.  As a result, it is critical
    for employers to conduct a job analysis and confirm that the
    job description accurately captures the essential job functions as performed by employees. And, this job description
    should accompany any ADA-compliant medical inquiry the employer makes to the employee’s healthcare provider
    to understand whether telecommuting will assist the employee in performing his or her job functions, why it is
    necessitated by the employee’s condition, and whether the provider can suggest alternative accommodations the
    employer can offer.
  • Qualification Standards v. Essential Job Functions: Chris explained a distinction employers often get wrong –
    confusing qualification standards (requirements intended to predict whether someone can perform the job,
    such as having a college degree or a commercial driver’s license) with essential functions (what the person actually
    does on the job – lifting packages, selling things). The EEOC will challenge employers if a particular
    qualification standard has the effect of screening out prospective employees in a discriminatory fashion.
    Employers must be able to demonstrate that a particular qualification is both job-related and consistent with
    business necessity. This is sometimes unsuccessful, as borne out by a case the EEOC brought on
    behalf of a postal worker whose condition limited her to lifting 10 pounds and who challenged a 70-pound
    lifting standard that the employer was unable to demonstrate was job-related and consistent with business
    necessity. Indeed, the EEOC was able to demonstrate by talking to employees who performed the job that
    they never lifted more than 35 pounds.
  • Leave as Accommodation: The EEOC and courts agree that, in general, leave of absence is a reasonable
    accommodation. But employers: Don’t just grant leave because the employee asks for it. The EEOC agrees that
    it is entirely appropriate for an employer to conduct ADA-compliant medical inquiries when an employee
    requests leave as an ADA accommodation. Such inquiries will assist the employer to ascertain why the
    employee’s condition requires leave (continuous or intermittent), how much leave is necessitated,
    whether such leave will enable the employee to return to work and perform the essential functions of his
    or her job, with or without accommodation(s), and to explore alternatives to leave that may be effective
    for the employee to report to work.
  • Reassignment: Following an ADA leave of absence an employer must try to reinstate the employee. But, if the
    employee cannot be accommodated in his or her current role, the accommodation of last resort must be
    considered – reassignment. To the EEOC, this means the employer and employee working together to
    identify positions open now or in the foreseeable future for which the employee is qualified and which are
    substantially equivalent to his or her current role. The employer cannot simply sit back and let the employee
    search and apply for open positions.
  • BONUS OBSERVATION: During the Q & A following our presentation, an employer asked what can be done
    if an employee refuses to participate in the interactive process. Chris explained that an employer who has
    told the employee about the ADA process upfront, including the need for both parties to engage in good
    faith in an interactive discussion, and who has documented its good faith efforts to do so will likely
    prevail in an EEOC charge or other proceeding alleging failure to accommodate. The burden of proof
    in such matters is on the party who is responsible for a breakdown in the interactive process and,
    if an employee is that party, the employer is excused from any obligation to provide accommodation(s)
    to that employee.

DMEC members can listen to a recording of the presentation and obtain a copy of our presentation materials through these links:

  • Webinar recording: (Name and email are required to be directed into the recording)

 

Meanwhile, Marti is presenting too!

By Marti Cardi, Vice President, Product Compliance

While Gail was putting the finishing touches on her DMEC presentation with the EEOC, I had the opportunity to present a session at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference on December 5. The topic was “Return to Work without Violating FMLA, ADA and Workers’ Compensation Laws.” I don’t claim to be a workers’ comp expert so I partnered with Rich Montarbo, a great workers’ comp attorney from that challenging state of California. We discussed the many employer options as alternatives to leave of absence, or to shorten a leave and get employees back to work safely and legally. Our sister company Safety National posted a blog about the presentation so rather than rewrite the material, I will link you to that story here.

 

MATRIX CAN HELP!  Matrix’s start-to-finish ADA Advantage management services can help you wrangle with tough issues like accommodation requests and making the medical inquiries to which you are entitled to understand what an employee needs and how you can help. You always retain the final decision whether and how to accommodate, but Matrix manages the intake, medical assessment, interactive process, recordkeeping, follow-up, and more.  Our expert team of ADA Specialists is at the ready with practical advice and expert guidance.  To learn more, ping us at ping@matrixcos.com.

MATRIX AND EEOC TO PRESENT AT DMEC ADA WEBINAR: The EEOC Weighs in on What Employers Still Get Wrong About the ADA

Posted on: November 9, 2018 0

by GAIL COHEN, DIRECTOR-EMPLOYMENT LAW/COMPLIANCE

I am pleased to announce that Matrix will be presenting at an upcoming DMEC webinar on December 6, 2018.  Our co-presenter will be Chris Kuczynski, Assistant Legal Counsel and Director of the ADA/GINA Policy Division of the EEOC.  The webinar, “The EEOC Weighs in on What Employers Still Get Wrong About the ADA,” will provide EEOC guidance and practical advice on the following tricky ADA issues often confronting employers:

 

  • Telework as a reasonable accommodation: What should an employer do when an employee asks for
    telework for reasons related to a disability?  Can the job be done from home?  What if the employee
    has performance problems?
  • Qualification Standards v. Essential Functions: What is a qualification standard, how does it differ from
    essential functions, and why does it matter?
  • Managing leaves of absence under the ADA: Inflexible leave policies may violate the ADA and an indefinite
    leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation, but what can an employer do in the vast majority of
    leaves that fall in between?  How do you assess a leave request for reasonableness?  How do you manage
    multiple requests for extensions? What medical inquiries can you make?
  • Reinstatement and reassignment following leave: When, why, and for how long do you have to hold the
    employee’s specific job open? What are your obligations for reassignment?  When can you call it quits?

DMEC member groups may register for the webinar here: December 6th Webinar. Non-members may register for a $29.95 fee. Contact your Reliance Standard/Matrix account manager for information/assistance!

Matrix can help!

Matrix’s ADA Advantage accommodations management system and our dedicated ADA team help employers maneuver through the accommodation process.  We will initiate an ADA claim for your employee, conduct the medical intake and analysis if needed, assist in identifying reasonable accommodations, document the process, and more.  Contact Matrix at ping@matrixcos.com to learn more about these services.