Often times when I am speaking to a client about an employee’s requested accommodation for a disability, we are talking about leave as that is often the request most difficult to accommodate. Another one that gives employers fits is “light duty.” But what about some other types of accommodations?
A recent Pennsylvania case reminds employers that they may have to consider other types of accommodations as well.
Last week, a jury found that Premier Comp Solutions, Inc. had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to give a former billing assistant extra breaks for her to address anxiety caused by her post-traumatic stress disorder. The company denied the breaks, mistakenly thinking that it did not have to provide an accommodation for her anxiety disorder. The jury awarded plaintiff $285,000 in damages.
I have limited facts about this case, but can say from experience, that employers may be quick to dismiss accommodation requests related to anxiety where the requested accommodation is to provide a “less stressful” environment. Yes, it is impossible to provide employees with a stress-free environment and there are plenty of cases that hold that is an unreasonable accommodation.
However, when faced with such requests, employers should make sure that they are asking questions and otherwise engaging in the interactive process. For example, they should get specifics (backed up with medical documentation) as to what is requested and what specifically is meant by a “less stressful” environment. Sometimes, employers may find that means something like here, which is additional breaks. Perhaps, it might also mean moving an employee’s work station to a more quiet area. In other words, it may mean an accommodation that can be granted and, more importantly, would be difficult to deny based on an undue hardship analysis.
Sometimes, however, even after discussion it appears the request is simply to make the employee’s work stress-free, which cannot be accommodated. Employers will not know until they open the discussion. So, before dismissing requests out of hand that seem impossible, an employer must first engage in the interactive process.