What Are Essential Job Functions Under the ADA?

Published July 23, 2021

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides that employers have the discretion to determine which job functions they deem to be essential to their business. Employers should describe essential job functions in writing before advertising and interviewing for the job. Doing so will leave little room for confusion and ensure employers have adequately provided notice of the essential functions of the job.

Need to define essential job functions

Essential functions are job duties that employees must have the ability to perform, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Each job should be carefully evaluated on its own to determine essential functions. For example, a library clerk may have duties listed in her job description that include being available to open and close an office space from time to time in absence of the facility manager. However, this is not necessarily a function that is essential to perform the job of library clerk. 

Questions organizations should ask to define essential functions:

  • Does the position exist to perform the duty in question (for instance, a welder’s essential job function is to to weld)?
  • How many employees are available to perform the same function?
  • Can the task be performed by anyone or does it require expertise (for example, an essential function of a software developer is to develop software, which requires specific expertise)?  

When a task is not fundamentally necessary to the performance of a particular job, it will be deemed as a “non-essential” function.

Essential job functions and reasonable accommodation

Employers may designate which functions are central or intrinsic to the performance of a particular job. A qualified individual must be able to perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodation.  

A reasonable accommodation is any change or modification to a job that permits a qualified individual to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment equal to those of employees without disabilities. Examples of reasonable accommodations may include: 

  • Procuring or modifying equipment
  • Reassigning non-essential job duties
  • Modified work schedules
  • Reassigning or reclassifying roles
  • Providing effective communication
  • Modifying the work environment to be accessible to persons with disabilities 
  • Remediating technology to ensure it is accessible to assistive technology

When reasonable accommodation is requested to perform an essential function by a qualified person, the request must be given consideration by the employer. The objective is to provide the accommodations needed so that employees have the opportunity to perform the essential functions of their jobs, regardless of disability status. 

How EEOC determines essential job functions

Employers should objectively assess which job functions may be essential to a particular job  before they initiate the hiring process for it. In the event of a dispute, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may consider the following questions to evaluate whether a function is fundamental to the performance of a job:

  • What is the employer’s written description of the job role and responsibilities which they used in their job ad to seek candidates?
  • Does the very existence of the job depend on the particular job function (such as a data entry operator)?
  • What percentage of the total work time is spent in performing that job function?
  • What will be the impact on the business in case of non-performance of the job function?

While the EEOC is entrusted with the task of enforcing the ADA provisions that prohibit workplace discrimination, it encourages workers and employers to resolve misunderstandings or disputes through mediation, negotiation, or other alternative mechanisms of dispute resolution where possible.

For more information about building and maintaining an inclusive workforce, please check out AccessibilityPlus.

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