Under Title I of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities in all aspects of employment. The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace that would allow an individual with a disability to carry out the essential functions of their job.
However, reasonable accommodations can be denied in situations where making the accommodations would cause an undue hardship for the employer.
In order to discuss what an undue hardship is, it is perhaps easier to start with some examples of common reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations are any changes made to the workplace that make it possible for a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential tasks of their job. Many reasonable accommodations can be made at little or no cost to the employer.
Some easily affordable accommodations include allowing service animals in the office, providing an accessible parking spot, ensuring that the employee’s computer has proper accessibility software, and allowing for modified work schedules. Other accommodations that may cost a little more money include building ramps, modifying the employee bathroom, and making changes to the layout of the office.
The ADA defines an undue hardship as any action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of the following factors:
- The nature and cost of the accommodation needed;
- The overall financial resources of the facility or facilities involved in the provision of the reasonable accommodation; the number of persons employed at such facility; the effect on expenses and resources, or the impact otherwise of such accommodation upon the operation of the facility;
- The overall financial resources of the covered entity; the overall size of the business of a covered entity with respect to the number of its employees; the number, type, and location of its facilities; and
- The type of operation or operations of the covered entity, including the composition, structure, and functions of the workforce of such entity; the geographic separateness, administrative, or fiscal relationship of the facility or facilities in question to the covered entity.
The difficulty in determining what constitutes an undue hardship stems from the fact that all employers are different, and therefore the process is subjective. An accommodation that would be burdensome for a small company may not be as burdensome for a large company.
Oftentimes, employers will object to a request for a reasonable accommodation because of the cost. Court decisions have shown that claiming that the cost of an accommodation is an undue hardship is not always sufficient. A good example of this is the case of Searls v. Johns Hopkins Hospital. In Searls, the hospital rescinded a job offer to the plaintiff who was a nurse with a hearing impairment. The plaintiff requested a sign language interpreter as an accommodation, but the hospital claimed that the cost of hiring an interpreter was excessive and would result in laying off two nurses to offset the expense.
The court rejected this argument noting that the cost of hiring the interpreter was only .007% of the hospital’s entire budget. For employers with large budgets, and even those with smaller budgets, a claim of excessive cost as an undue hardship will usually have to be tied to another factor in order for the denial to be successful.
Although the cost of an accommodation may seem excessive, the employer is required to seek outside funding to mitigate the expense before denying the request. Assistance for employers can come from many sources including state rehabilitation agencies and tax credits. In some cases, the employer may also ask the employee with the disability to contribute financially to the cost of the accommodation. Employers must also determine if there are alternative reasonable accommodations that would not cause an undue hardship.
Undue hardship claims by employers are upheld in some situations, however. Courts have upheld decisions in which the employer denied an accommodation that would eliminate an essential function of the job. In Griffin v. Prince William Health System, the plaintiff, a nurse, requested an accommodation because she was not able to lift anything heavier than 25 pounds. Her job required her to be able to move patients and equipment of up to 40 pounds.
The employer denied the request claiming that providing an accommodation would require other employees to take on extra work by helping with moving patients and equipment. The court upheld the denial of the accommodation as eliminating an essential function of the job would cause an undue hardship on the employer.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also provides hypothetical situations in which an undue hardship claim by an employer would be upheld. Situations where an employee requests a modified schedule that would require other employees to work extra hours or take on extra duties would be considered an undue hardship for an employer.
An example provided by the EEOC involves two store clerks working together, but one clerk requests a change to part-time hours. As a result of the request, the other clerk who works full-time would have to take on extra responsibilities in order to make up for the reduced productivity of the other clerk. In this situation, the employer could successfully claim an undue hardship on the operation of the business.
Ultimately, employers’ claims of undue hardship when a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA is made will be decided on a case-by-case basis. An accommodation that might constitute an undue hardship for one employer may be an accommodation that can be made easily by another. Many factors contribute to claims of undue hardship, and employers and employees alike should seek out legal advice when there is any question about the legitimacy of a claim of undue hardship.