Undue Hardship: When Reasonable Accommodations Aren’t Reasonable

August 26, 2021 - minute read

Two of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s primary functions are ensuring employers accommodate qualified individuals with disabilities and protecting employees’ right to work in work environments free from discrimination. But what happens when doing so endangers the success of a business?

Undue hardship occurs when accommodating an employee results in significant difficulty or expense for your business. It provides added protection or a “way out” for employers faced with employing individuals who aren’t suited for work in their specific environment… even in cases where the someone has a federally protected disability.

However, determining undue hardship is easier said than done. Many hourly workforces still struggle to define it and manage realistic modifications for their many industry positions. Let’s break down the EEOC’s expectations, so you have everything you need to make compliant decisions involving accommodation requests.

Essential Functions Are Key

As an employer, you know you have a duty to comply with the EEOC and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by modifying your operation to support individuals with disabilities. However, the EEOC recognizes that making accommodations cannot be allowed to strain your business unnecessarily. Undue hardship acknowledges that there are hurdles to inclusivity and not every accommodation is possible.

Undue hardship weighs the act of accommodating individuals against the literal costs of doing so. Whether it is in relation to the size, nature or structure of your operation does not matter. What matters is that you are able to carry out reasonable accommodations to help disabled employees do their job without inviting in greater adversity for your business.

According to the SHRM, any individual with disabilities you decide to hire must possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to be able to perform the essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation. If they cannot perform all the required functions to some degree, your operation is not liable to make significant changes which jeopardize your business. After all, keeping employees in ill-fitting positions could not only lead to setbacks for your business – it could potentially endanger the individuals themselves.

How to Decide Whether an Accommodation Creates Undue Hardship

The ADA is clear that most employers with 15 or more employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations. But determining whether or not a reasonable accommodation poses undue hardship depends much more on the position your employee holds and the environment they work in.

To determine whether or not an accommodation request poses undue hardship, you must:

  • Examine the difficulties an employee with disabilities has performing their essential job functions;
  • Check if reasonable accommodations for the employee’s disability are formally dictated or required under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA);
  • Review how the employee’s disability affects their ability to perform their essential duties if an accommodation is made (ex. changing job tasks, providing reserved parking, improving accessibility within your work site, or allowing scheduling flexibility);
  • Determine whether making significant modifications and/or restructuring your employee’s job undermines the position to the point of no longer resembling its original purpose or fulfilling its essential duties for the success of your business;
  • For more information on carrying out a reasonable accommodation process, see SHRM’s complete How-to-Guide for processing an accommodation for your employee compliantly.

Although the federal law has altered its definition of a disability, EEOC stresses focusing on accommodating employees rather than attempting to rule out the need to provide an accommodation. Remember: just because something is more difficult for an employee does not mean they cannot do it.

Finding Alternate Accommodations

When it comes down to it: you do not have to eliminate a fundamental duty to ensure a person with disabilities is able to work in a specific position. This is because a person with a disability who is unable to perform the essential functions (with or without reasonable accommodation), is not a "qualified" individual with a disability under the ADA.

That said, if a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, you must try to identify another accommodation that will not pose such a hardship. Check out the EEOC’s Q&A for more insight on your responsibilities around trying to find alternative solutions.

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Filed Under: Human Resources EEOC