Job Coaches as a Reasonable Accommodation
Q: I am a vocational rehabilitation counselor. A large sized retail store told me that due to COVID-19 restrictions, they cannot accept any job applicants who will need a job coach as a reasonable accommodation. Is this permissible?
A: No. An employer cannot eliminate an entire class of reasonable accommodation regardless of COVID-19 limitations. That being said, they may set restrictions as to the job coach being required to wear a facemask and to follow any workplace health and safety protocols that are in place.
The store might claim that permitting the job coach creates an undue hardship – in this case an administrative burden – with the argument being that they can’t have more than a certain specified number of staff in the store at any time, and they can’t operate with less than that number of staff. BUT, as the space is open to the public because it is a retail environment, the store could limit the number of customers in the store at any one time to accommodate the extra person (the job coach).
Regardless, the store cannot proscribe all job coaches without an individual assessment of an accommodation request and a fact-based examination of evidence.
The EEOC recognizes that some accommodations may need to be denied because of undue hardship due to COVID-19, but that is in limited circumstances.
In the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) document, What You Should Know About COVID-19 and The ADA, The Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws, the EEOC states the following:
D.10. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses "significant difficulty" during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)
An employer may consider whether current circumstances create "significant difficulty" in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace. For example, it may be significantly more difficult in this pandemic to conduct a needs assessment or to acquire certain items, and delivery may be impacted, particularly for employees who may be teleworking. Or it may be significantly more difficult to provide employees with temporary assignments, to remove marginal functions, or to readily hire temporary workers for specialized positions. If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems.
So, the retail store should engage individuals who request a job coach on a case-by-case basis to determine if it would be an undue hardship. If the store believes that it would pose a direct threat to allow a job coach on site, then they must conduct a careful individualized fact-based examination of any increased risk as well as if those risks could be reduced or eliminated.