Let's talk for a moment about the term "reasonable accommodation." According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA and Title VII, a modification or adjustment is reasonable if it appears to be "feasible" or "plausible." An accommodation also must be effective in enabling the individual to perform the essential functions of the job and to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.
Under the ADA, reasonable accommodations for a disability may include such things as making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; and reassignment to a vacant position. This can include such things as assisted reading devices for employees with low vision; stools or seating for employees who become fatigued; or installation of TTY devices for the hearing impaired.
Reasonable accommodations for religious practice might include allowing flexible schedules to enable religious observance; changing an employee's job tasks if a particular belief conflicts with a task; making exceptions to dress and grooming rules; allowing the use of work facilities for religious observances; and accommodating religious expression in the workplace.
Now let's discuss the phrase "undue hardship." The EEOC applies a different standard for undue hardship under the ADA than for religious accommodation. In general, for disability accommodations, undue hardship means significant difficulty or expense. Undue hardship refers not only to financial difficulty, but to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. An employer must assess on a case-by-case basis whether a particular reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship.
Under Title VII, the undue hardship defense to providing religious accommodation requires a showing that the proposed accommodation in a particular case poses a "more than de minimis" cost or burden. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer's business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees' job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee's share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
While each case is unique, employees may request an ADA or religious accommodation at any time during the employment process. No special language is needed, and the request need not be in writing--a conversation will suffice. The manager or employer should respond promptly, and engage the employee in an informal dialogue where the needs and request are discussed. In certain instances the employer may need to request more information from the employee, such as details about religious observances or reasonable documentation when the employee's disability or the need for accommodation is not obvious.
In most cases, from both a legal and managerial standpoint, it is well worth an employer's effort to attempt to accommodate an employee, as most accommodations are low-cost and yield considerable benefits. In fact, according to the Job Accommodation Network, more than half of all accommodations for disability cost nothing, and of those that do cost money, the typical one-time expenditure is $500.
To learn more about reasonable accommodations, you can visit the websites of the Job Accommodation Network (askjan.org) and the EEOC (eeoc.gov). For more information on a range of human resources and benefits issues, visit us at HR360.com.