Employers’ Undue Hardship Defense to Providing a Reasonable Accommodation in the Workplace

It is well known that employers are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The federal ADA and California Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA) forbid employment discrimination against an individual based on his/her physical disability, mental disability, or medical condition.  The FEHA recognizes a person as “disabled” if they have a physical or mental disability that limits[1] one or more major life activities, has a history of such an impairment known to the employer or is incorrectly regarded or treated as having or had such an impairment.  You are also protected when you need accommodations to care for a family member with a disability or medical condition (disability by association).

The FEHA provides stronger protections in the workplace than the ADA, and requires the employer provide reasonable accommodations so the disabled employee can perform the “essential functions” of the job…unless the accommodation would create an “undue hardship” for the employer.

Some examples of reasonable accommodations include: making the facilities (break rooms, lunch rooms, training rooms and restrooms) accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, restructuring a job (transferring functions of the job to another position or changing how the essential function is performed), allowing part-time or modified work schedules, reassigning an employee to a vacant position, acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, adjusting or modifying exams/training material/policies, providing qualified readers or interpreters, providing leave, providing accessible transport, allowing the use of reserved parking spaces, providing personal assistants and/or allowing the use of guide dogs for blind employees. While these are not automatically “reasonable,” as it depends on the facts and circumstances of each situation, courts have routinely held such accommodation requests to be reasonable in general.

So what is an undue hardship? There are many factors that come into play when it comes to determining if the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Before denying an accommodation request, an employer might want to explore different options that would make it possible to meet the employee’s needs. Per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (EEOC) the determination of undue hardship should be based on several factors, including:

  • Nature and cost of the accommodation needed;
  • Overall financial resources of the facility making the reasonable accommodation;
  • Number of persons employed at the facility;
  • The effect on expenses and resources of the facility;
  • Type and location of facilities of the employer;
  • Type of operation of the employer, including the structure and functions of the workforce, the geographic separates and the administrative or fiscal relationship of the facility involved in making the accommodation to the employer;
  • The impact of the accommodation on the operation of the facility.

Following are some examples of requested accommodations courts held to be “undue hardship” or, in other words, not a “reasonable” accommodation:

  • Harmer v. Virginia Electric and Power Company: the employee had a pulmonary disability. When his employer denied his request that the entire workplace be declared smoke-free, the employee sued under the ADA. The court found that a reasonable accommodation would be the addition of fans, air purifiers, and smoke-free sections of the workplace and, therefore, denied the employee’s claim.
  • Tyndall v. National Education Centers: Employee had excessive absences due to disability. The employer prevailed on the basis that the employee was not “otherwise qualified” because she was excessively absent. The employer attempted to accommodate the worker, but seven weeks of leave over less than a year justified termination.

If your employer has denied you a reasonable accommodation in violation of your rights, you should contact an attorney in order to ensure your employer has sound business reasons for denying your request.


[1] The FEHA offers broader protection by only requiring a major life activity be limited; in comparison to the ADA’s requirement that it be substantially limited.

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