Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation—The EEOC Weighs In
April 26, 2020
Shared from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.
Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
Permitting the use of accrued paid leave, or unpaid leave, is a form of reasonable accommodation when necessitated by an employee's disability. An employer does not have to provide paid leave beyond that which is provided to similarly-situated employees. Employers should allow an employee with a disability to exhaust accrued paid leave first and then provide unpaid leave. For example, if employees get 10 days of paid leave, and an employee with a disability needs 15 days of leave, the employer should allow the individual to use 10 days of paid leave and 5 days of unpaid leave.
An employee with a disability may need leave for a number of reasons related to the disability, including, but not limited to:
- obtaining medical treatment (e.g., surgery, psychotherapy, substance abuse treatment, or dialysis); rehabilitation services; or physical or occupational therapy;
- recuperating from an illness or an episodic manifestation of the disability;
- obtaining repairs on a wheelchair, accessible van, or prosthetic device;
- avoiding temporary adverse conditions in the work environment (for example, an air-conditioning breakdown causing unusually warm temperatures that could seriously harm an employee with multiple sclerosis);
- training a service animal (e.g., a guide dog); or
- receiving training in the use of braille or to learn sign language.
May an employer apply a "no-fault" leave policy, under which employees are automatically terminated after they have been on leave for a certain period of time, to an employee with a disability who needs leave beyond the set period?
No. If an employee with a disability needs additional unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, the employer must modify its "no-fault" leave policy to provide the employee with the additional leave, unless it can show that: (1) there is another effective accommodation that would enable the person to perform the essential functions of his/her position, or (2) granting additional leave would cause an undue hardship. Modifying workplace policies, including leave policies, is a form of reasonable accommodation.
Does an employer have to hold open an employee's job as a reasonable accommodation?
Yes. An employee with a disability who is granted leave as a reasonable accommodation is entitled to return to his/her same position unless the employer demonstrates that holding open the position would impose an undue hardship.
If an employer cannot hold a position open during the entire leave period without incurring undue hardship, the employer must consider whether it has a vacant, equivalent position for which the employee is qualified and to which the employee can be reassigned to continue his/her leave for a specific period of time and then, at the conclusion of the leave, can be returned to this new position.
Example: An employee needs eight months of leave for treatment and recuperation related to a disability. The employer grants the request, but after four months the employer determines that it can no longer hold open the position for the remaining four months without incurring undue hardship. The employer must consider whether it has a vacant, equivalent position to which the employee can be reassigned for the remaining four months of leave, at the end of which time the employee would return to work in that new position. If an equivalent position is not available, the employer must look for a vacant position at a lower level. Continued leave is not required as a reasonable accommodation if a vacant position at a lower level is also unavailable.
Can an employer penalize an employee for work missed during leave taken as a reasonable accommodation?
No. To do so would be retaliation for the employee's use of a reasonable accommodation to which s/he is entitled under the law. Moreover, such punishment would make the leave an ineffective accommodation, thus making an employer liable for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.
Example A: A salesperson took five months of leave as a reasonable accommodation. The company compares the sales records of all salespeople over a one-year period, and any employee whose sales fall more than 25% below the median sales performance of all employees is automatically terminated. The employer terminates the salesperson because she had fallen below the required performance standard. The company did not consider that the reason for her lower sales performance was her five-month leave of absence; nor did it assess her productivity during the period she did work (i.e., prorate her productivity).
Penalizing the salesperson in this manner constitutes retaliation and a denial of reasonable accommodation.
Example B: Company X is having a reduction-in-force. The company decides that any employee who has missed more than four weeks in the past year will be terminated. An employee took five weeks of leave for treatment of his disability. The company cannot count those five weeks in determining whether to terminate this employee.
When an employee requests leave as a reasonable accommodation, may an employer provide an accommodation that requires him/her to remain on the job instead?
Yes, if the employer's reasonable accommodation would be effective and eliminate the need for leave. An employer need not provide an employee's preferred accommodation as long as the employer provides an effective accommodation. Accordingly, in lieu of providing leave, an employer may provide a reasonable accommodation that requires an employee to remain on the job (e.g., reallocation of marginal functions or temporary transfer) as long as it does not interfere with the employee's ability to address his/her medical needs. The employer is obligated, however, to restore the employee's full duties or to return the employee to his/her original position once s/he no longer needs the reasonable accommodation.
Example A: An employee with emphysema requests ten weeks of leave for surgery and recuperation related to his disability. In discussing this request with the employer, the employee states that he could return to work after seven weeks if, during his first three weeks back, he could work part-time and eliminate two marginal functions that require lots of walking. If the employer provides these accommodations, then it can require the employee to return to work after seven weeks.
Example B: An employee's disability is getting more severe and her doctor recommends surgery to counteract some of the effects. After receiving the employee's request for leave for the surgery, the employer proposes that it provide certain equipment which it believes will mitigate the effects of the disability and delay the need for leave to get surgery. The employer's proposed accommodation is not effective because it interferes with the employee's ability to get medical treatment.
How should an employer handle leave for an employee covered by both the ADA and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?
An employer should determine an employee's rights under each statute separately, and then consider whether the two statutes overlap regarding the appropriate actions to take.
Under the ADA, an employee who needs leave related to his/her disability is entitled to such leave if there is no other effective accommodation and the leave will not cause undue hardship. An employer must allow the individual to use any accrued paid leave first, but, if that is insufficient to cover the entire period, then the employer should grant unpaid leave. An employer must continue an employee's health insurance benefits during his/her leave period only if it does so for other employees in a similar leave status. As for the employee's position, the ADA requires that the employer hold it open while the employee is on leave unless it can show that doing so causes undue hardship. When the employee is ready to return to work, the employer must allow the individual to return to the same position (assuming that there was no undue hardship in holding it open) if the employee is still qualified (i.e., the employee can perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation).
If it is an undue hardship under the ADA to hold open an employee's position during a period of leave, or an employee is no longer qualified to return to his/her original position, then the employer must reassign the employee (absent undue hardship) to a vacant position for which s/he is qualified.
Under the FMLA, an eligible employee is entitled to a maximum of 12 weeks of leave per 12 month period. The FMLA guarantees the right of the employee to return to the same position or to an equivalent one. An employer must allow the individual to use any accrued paid leave first, but if that is insufficient to cover the entire period, then the employer should grant unpaid leave. The FMLA requires an employer to continue the employee's health insurance coverage during the leave period, provided the employee pays his/her share of the premiums.
Example A: An employee with an ADA disability needs 13 weeks of leave for treatment related to the disability. The employee is eligible under the FMLA for 12 weeks of leave (the maximum available), so this period of leave constitutes both FMLA leave and a reasonable accommodation. Under the FMLA, the employer could deny the employee the thirteenth week of leave. But, because the employee is also covered under the ADA, the employer cannot deny the request for the thirteenth week of leave unless it can show undue hardship. The employer may consider the impact on its operations caused by the initial 12-week absence, along with other undue hardship factors.
Example B: An employee with an ADA disability has taken 10 weeks of FMLA leave and is preparing to return to work. The employer wants to put her in an equivalent position rather than her original one. Although this is permissible under the FMLA, the ADA requires that the employer return the employee to her original position. Unless the employer can show that this would cause an undue hardship, or that the employee is no longer qualified for her original position (with or without reasonable accommodation), the employer must reinstate the employee to her original position.
Example C: An employee with an ADA disability has taken 12 weeks of FMLA leave. He notifies his employer that he is ready to return to work, but he no longer is able to perform the essential functions of his position or an equivalent position. Under the FMLA, the employer could terminate his employment, but under the ADA the employer must consider whether the employee could perform the essential functions with reasonable accommodation (e.g., additional leave, part-time schedule, job restructuring, or use of specialized equipment). If not, the ADA requires the employer to reassign the employee if there is a vacant position available for which he is qualified, with or without reasonable accommodation, and there is no undue hardship.