The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that an employer with over fifteen employees must provide reasonable accommodations to a person with a disability, provided those accommodations do not result in an “undue hardship” on the employer. “Undue hardship” is a nebulous term, but it usually refers to any accommodation that is unreasonable, expensive, burdens other employees, or significantly impacts job performance.
Examples of undue hardship include requests that eliminate portions of an employee’s job description. These include requests for less typing at a data entry job or requests that fundamentally change the workplace, like an employee asking for bright lights when working at a movie theater. In addition, requests that cause additional work for other employees, such as a flexible schedule, require others to work more hours.
Undue hardship can also refer to differing accommodation requests—the presence of a service dog triggering severe allergies. Under the ADA, both employees should be accommodated to the fullest extent possible. There will likely be an employee unhappy in this situation.
Determining the conflict
When confronted with two requests for accommodation that seem incompatible, the first step is to review each accommodation, relating it to your workplace thoroughly. The conflicting needs may be resolved by separating the employees and giving them the space they need for each accommodation. Alternatively, accommodations may no longer conflict with their fellow employee’s request.
A thorough review can find many solutions, but many more will still present a conflict regardless of the effort put forth in examining each case. The ADA offers little guidance on balancing the needs of both employees, which leaves the difficult decision of who to accommodate in your, the employer’s, hands. It is up to you to determine the nature of the conflict, the potential ramifications of your inability to accommodate, and what concessions either employee is willing to make.
Exploring alternate options
One of the best methods for successfully resolving the issue of competing needs is to speak with both employees and look into alternative but equally beneficial options to assist your employees with their job duties. If simple solutions are unavailable – like relocating the employee with severe dog allergies or the employee with a service dog – it’s important to exhaust all possible options before you decide to deny the accommodation request.
For example, the service dog and severe allergy conflict may have some ways to solve the problems presented by these conflicting disabilities. It may be possible for the company to provide a specialized air purifier for the employee with allergies so that any reaction to the service dog can be mitigated. Alternatively, the company may invest in specialized cleaning to ensure the area that the employee with allergies works in is clear of any dander or hair that may trigger a reaction.
Making a decision
There may not be a way to accommodate both requests despite exhausting alternate options. If you have put forth your best effort to find a solution but have been unsuccessful, it’s time for the unpleasant task of choosing which employee you are most able to accommodate. So how do you make that decision?
First, you must be careful about how to proceed. Ensure that each accommodation request has gone through the proper channels and has been officially considered. Without a paper trail and official documentation, you risk making a decision that conflicts with the ADA, as the Ohio State University (OSU) did in 2019. In this decision, the federal district court determined that the ADA Coordinator at OSU did not “perform the correct inquiry under the ADA.” One of the parties involved in this suit did not make a formal accommodation request, and when the school ruled in her favor, they violated the other party’s rights under the ADA.
Second, provided you have determined both employees formally submitted their requests, you should examine how each accommodation will affect your workplace. Permitting a service dog may present an undue hardship if it results in significant expense by requiring building modifications or violates other laws and regulations, such as food safety laws. Providing accommodations for allergies, however, may also present an undue hardship if the required air purifiers or specialized cleaning is also significantly expensive.
The determination between conflicting accommodation requests should not determine the severity or validity of both employees’ disabilities. Provided each employee has sufficient documentation supporting their accommodation request, it is not your place as an employer to decide which employee ‘deserves’ their accommodation. Instead, it is up to you to determine which accommodations are most appropriate for your workplace.
There is no formula for the correct answer when two (or more) employees request accommodations that conflict with one another. Your decision will be unique and personal to your workplace situation. However, with open communication and a willingness to work with your employees, you can discover a solution that will work best for you.