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The Complicated World of Employment Discrimination (Part III)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material I wrote for APUS classes. It is the third article in an eight-part series on employment discrimination law and sound employment practices. In this article, we will look at the disability protections added to federal law since Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Protecting Certain Citizens from Employment Discrimination

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an amendment to the Civil Rights Act and the first substantial legislation to address extensive protections for disabled individuals. The law covers a variety of contexts, including accommodations that businesses and facilities open to the public must provide for disabled patrons. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll examine only the extent of legal protections for employees and prospective employees.

Under the law, employers are required to make “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities, unless doing so would burden the employer with “undue hardship.” However, these legal terms have been loaded with nearly 30 years of judicial interpretation since their inception.

Federal law defines “reasonable accommodation” as “any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.” The concept of reasonable accommodation consists of three distinct categories:

  • Modifications that allow disabled applicants to be duly considered for jobs
  • Modifications to work environments that allow disabled employees to perform their jobs
  • Modifications that allow disabled employees to enjoy the same benefits of employment as their non-disabled counterparts

There are thousands of documented examples of reasonable accommodations, and still thousands of more hypothetical examples. The key for employers to understand is that accommodation is likely to be legally required unless it presents “undue hardship” for the employer in question.

Federal law defines “undue hardship” as “significant difficulty or expense.” According to the law, it focuses on the resources and circumstances of the particular employer in relation to the cost or difficulty of providing a specific accommodation.

Undue hardship refers not only to any financial difficulty in accommodating a disabled employee’s needs, but to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive to the business. Another category includes accommodations that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.

The Dividing Line between Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship

So where precisely is the line between reasonable accommodation and undue hardship? The answer is that it depends on the circumstances.

Generally, employers must do what is necessary to make jobs accessible and feasible by disabled employees. This accommodation might mean widened doorways, automatic doors, ramps and handrails for the mobility-impaired.

Similarly, the employer might need to provide special telecommunications equipment for employees who are deaf or have visual impairments. Furthermore, an employer may make schedule modifications for employees with an entire host of different medical conditions that affect employee matters such as bathroom breaks, medication needs and doctor appointments.

However, there is a limit to what employers should provide, and employers are not on the hook to accommodate every disability in every circumstance. When an undue hardship exists, employers are within their legal rights to decline to make reasonable accommodation for their employees.

Whether or not an undue hardship is in existence depends on the circumstances. But usually if an undue hardship exists, there is an extreme burden on the part of the employer that cannot be overcome through any less expensive or effortful means.

For example, suppose an employer operates a business out of a building that was built prior to modern ADA statutory requirements, and that building’s doors, corridors, stairwells, and elevators consequently do not allow for easy access by wheelchair. Such an employer is obviously not required to knock down his building and build a new one. The employer also does not have to undertake the kind of tremendous renovation that would be required to fix this accessibility issue.

Under these circumstances, the employer would most likely be excused from the requirement of accommodation by way of undue hardship. But changing one or two doorways that need widening, where such changes would not structurally compromise a building, are probably not sufficient to meet the level of scrutiny required for the “undue hardship” standard.

But what constitutes a disability under the law? In the next part of this article series, we’ll look at how the ADA defines “disability” and what this answer means for employers in the United States.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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