Employers should be aware that new regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act contain several substantive requirements for work areas. These legal requirements are in addition to employers' general obligation under Title I of the ADA to make reasonable accommodation for qualified employees with disabilities.

On July 23, 2010, the U.S. Attorney General signed revised final regulations under Titles II and III of the ADA, governing accessibility in governmental entities and places of public accommodation. Included in the new regulations are the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design, which affect, among other locations, employee work areas.

Compliance with these new design standards for newly constructed or altered facilities must be achieved by March 15, 2012. The regulations provide, however, that employee work areas within existing facilities that are not altered on or after March 15, 2012, and that comply with 1991 Standards for Accessible Design need not be modified to comply with the 2010 Standards. Also under the new regulations, employers must continue removal of barriers to accessibility within employee work areas if readily achievable.

Under the design standards, an "employee work area" is defined as "all or any portion of a space used only by employees and used only for work." Corridors, toilet rooms, kitchenettes, and break rooms are not considered employee work areas under the new regulations.

The new regulations require that newly constructed or altered spaces and elements within employee work areas comply with a subset of the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design, rather than with all provisions. In addition, affected employee work areas that are smaller than 300 square feet and elevated seven inches or more above the ground, or finished floor, for which elevation is essential to the function of the space need not comply with even these requirements, nor need they be on an accessible route. However, the U.S. Department of Justice advises that employers consider designing areas that are not subject to new standards to include non-required turning spaces and to provide accessible elements whenever possible.

Other employee work areas, if newly constructed or altered, must allow for approach, entrance, and exit of the areas by individuals with disabilities. Further, common-use circulation paths—those interior or exterior ways of passage provided for pedestrian travel, including walks, hallways, courtyards, elevators, and landings—must consist of a running slope not steeper than 1:20, doorways, ramps, or curb ramps excluding flared sides, elevators, and platform lifts. Certain circulation paths, including those that are shorter than 1,000 feet and defined by permanently installed partitions, counters, casework, or furnishings, are not required to comply with these standards. The new standards also require that means of egress located within employee work areas comply with the International Building Code and that, wherever audible emergency alarms exist, wiring systems capable of supporting visual alarms are installed.

Throughout the new standards, the DOJ recognizes that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces Title I of the ADA, the section addressing nondiscrimination in the workplace. The Title I obligation that employers provide reasonable accommodation for qualified disabled employees may overlap with the new Title III obligations insofar as they may include making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by disabled employees. These obligations coexist, so employers should not view the new Standards for Accessible Design as the minimum requirements for providing access to applicants and employees with disabilities. Instead, employers are expected to comply with the new standards while also consulting EEOC regulations regarding other forms of accommodation that may be required for the specific disabilities of applicants and employees.

This legal alert summarizes only some of the revised regulations signed on July 23, 2010. These regulations also contained lengthy revisions related to substantive changes that state and local governments (Title II) and public accommodations (Title III) must make in their policies and procedures to ensure accessibility for members of the public with disabilities.