California employers have a legal duty to make reasonable accommodations for your disabilities to help you perform your essential job duties. Failure to accommodate can be the grounds for a labor board complaint or a civil lawsuit.
Examples of reasonable accommodations (RAs) include:
- making a worksite wheelchair accessible,
- allowing you to leave work to attend doctor appointments,
- buying equipment to better accommodate you, and/or
- restructuring your job duties or requirements.
The above duty applies unless the employer would experience an undue hardship in making appropriate accommodations. An “undue hardship” means that upholding the duty would result in the company incurring significant:
- expense, or
If there is no undue hardship, and the employer fails to make reasonable accommodations, then you can file an ADA complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Disability discrimination is just one form of employment discrimination. Others include discrimination on the basis of:
Our California labor and employment law attorneys will address the following in this article:
- 1. What is a reasonable accommodation in California?
- 2. What qualifies as a reasonable accommodation?
- 3. What is a disability?
- 4. Can an employer deny reasonable accommodation?
- 5. What if California employers fail to make reasonable accommodations?
- 6. Sample forms for Requests for Reasonable Accommodations
1. What is a reasonable accommodation in California?
California employment law imposes an affirmative duty of “reasonable accommodation” on an employer when it learns that you have a certain known disability.
In this situation, the employer has a legal duty to:
- reasonably accommodate, or provide for, you, and
- do so in a manner that allows you to perform your essential functions of the position.1
This duty applies unless an accommodation imposes an “undue hardship” on the employer.2
Further, the reasonable accommodation duty does not apply to those California employers with less than five employees.3
Note that once an employer learns of your disability, California law requires:
- the employer to enter into an “interactive process” with you, and
- do so in a reasonable effort to help find an appropriate accommodation.4
An “interactive process” refers to communication between the employer and you that:
- helps the employer find the right accommodation, and
- ensures that it assists you in performing the essential functions of a job.5
Note too that if you request a reasonable accommodation, the employer must respond to it in a timely fashion and must act in good faith. Even if you do not directly request an accommodation, an employer should provide one as long as:
- your disability is observable, or
- someone else informs the employer of your disability.
Also note that you should be able to give your boss a list of requested accommodations. But employers can only request medical documentation if the reason for an accommodation request is not obvious.6
2. What qualifies as reasonable accommodation?
An employer makes a “reasonable accommodation” when it makes appropriate adjustments so that you can perform the essential functions of your job despite your disability.7
Whether or not an adjustment helps in performing an “essential job function” is based upon the facts of the case. Courts consider the following factors:
- your job description;
- your basic job duties;
- the training materials applicable to your job; and
- the employer’s experience with other similarly situated employees.
In determining whether a job function qualifies as “essential,” courts consider:
- How specialized the job function is;
- How many other employees can perform the function; and
- Whether the purpose of your job is to perform that function.
Common evidence in these cases include:
- your work history in similar positions;
- how much time you spend on a particular job function;
- your job description; and
- the consequences of the job function not being performed.
Note that employers must keep your disability private (unless you say otherwise). The only people who can know about it are the managers who need to know about it to provide the accommodation. And any medical documentation must be stored separately and confidentially from your personnel file.8
2.1. What is an example of a reasonable accommodation?
The following are examples of an employer’s reasonable accommodations:
- buying equipment to accommodate your disability and increase accessibility,
- job restructuring or alterations in work schedules,
- letting you take time off of work to make health care appointments,
- making changes in the work environment to allow for a wheelchair accessible work site,
- reassignment of you to a vacant position,
- bringing an assistive dog to the office,
- modifying the job application process for qualified applicants with disabilities,
- making schedules more flexible (“flex-time”),
- an unpaid leave of absence, and
- relaxing work restrictions for you.
Example: Joe is an outside salesperson for a company based in Los Angeles. He works part-time in the office and spends three days a week traveling to meet with clients in San Francisco.
Joe gets in a car accident that leaves him wheelchair bound. He speaks with his employer’s Human Resources Department and asks if it can make any reasonable and effective accommodations to help him perform his job tasks given his disability.
As part of the reasonable accommodation process, the company changes Joe’s duties so that he longer has to fly to San Francisco and allows him to work full-time in the Los Angeles location. These changes represent a type of accommodation that is reasonable.
3. What is a disability?
California employment law does not require employers to comply with every accommodation request made by an employee with a medical condition.
The law states that an employer only has to make accommodations if a condition qualifies as a “disability.”
A “disability” is a condition that limits your major life activity.9 A condition limits a major life activity if it makes it more difficult for you to perform that activity.10
“Major life activities” include things like:
- performing physical tasks and activities, and
- engaging in social interactions.
A qualified individual under these laws can suffer from either:
- a mental disability (such as bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, or other mental impairment or illness), or
- a physical disability (such as migraines, missing a limb, organ impairment, or being paralyzed), or
- a medical condition, defined as either (1) cancer, or (2) genetic characteristics associated with increased risk of developing a disease or disorder
Not covered are:
- sex behavior disorders,
- usage of unlawful psychoactive substances, or
- such disorders as compulsive gambling, starting fires (pyromania), or stealing (kleptomania).
And California state employees with marijuana prescriptions do not enjoy legal protections for pot use.11
See our related article, “Stress Leave” in California – Are workers entitled to it?
4. Can an employer deny reasonable accommodation?
Employers have a duty to provide for reasonable accommodations for your disability unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship.”
An “undue hardship” means that the company would experience significant difficulty or expense by making appropriate accommodations.12 If it would, then the business can deny your request for reasonable accommodations.
The facts of a case often determine whether an undue hardship exists. Some important factors to consider in this determination are:
- the true cost of the accommodations,
- the size of the business (such as the number of employees) and its financial resources,
- how the business is structured,
- the type of work the company performs (“type of operations”), and
- the interactions among the company’s facilities.13
You have the responsibility to ask for accommodations. Disabled employees who do not ask for accommodation – and do poor work – can be terminated.
Note that your employer can require a doctor’s note before making a reasonable accommodation. Learn more in our article, Can an employer require a doctor’s note in California?
5. What if California employers fail to make reasonable accommodations?
If there is no undue hardship, and the employer fails to make reasonable accommodations, then you can file a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – which is federal law.
Violations of the ADA can be filed as a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.gov). The EEOC enforces federal ADA disability discrimination laws. This includes the failure to provide reasonable accommodations.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is the state agency that handles complaints of disability discrimination. These complaints are brought under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
Before filing a complaint with the EEOC, you should have requested a reasonable accommodation from your employer. If there is no resolution, you can file a complaint with either the EEOC or the DFEH. (Usually there is a one-year statute of limitations to file a claim.)14
Note that depending on the facts of the case, the failure to provide appropriate accommodations may also be considered disability discrimination.
Note too that it is unlawful for a company to retaliate against you because of a request to provide reasonable accommodations. Instances of wrongful retaliation include:
- wrongful termination,
- bullying (if retaliation is done by co-workers) and
- reducing your pay below the minimum wage.16
6. Sample forms for Requests for Reasonable Accommodations
You are advised to use this form created by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) to request reasonable accommodations from your employer.
¿Habla español? Utilice este formulario.
For additional help…
Need additional enforcement guidance or to discuss your case with a labor and employment lawyer? We invite you to contact our law firm at Shouse Law Group. We provide free consultations and bona fide legal advice that you can trust.
For additional resources see the Job Accommodation Network (JAN).
Disclaimer: Results cannot be guaranteed.
- California Government Code 12940m1. Nealy v. City of Santa Monica (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 359. Prilliman v. United Air Lines, Inc. (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 935. See also 29 CFR pt. 1630 and ADA Title I. See also Lui v. San Francisco (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 962.
- See same.
- California Government Code 12926d.
- 2 Cal Code Regs 11068a. See also California Government Code 12940n. In some cases, the communication between a boss and worker can go through a third party. See Claudio v. Regents of the University of California (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 224.
- Wilson v. County of Orange (2009) 169 Cal.App.4th 1185. Depending on the situation, possible accommodations may include sign-language interpreters, braille materials, space for a service animal, TTY (for hearing impaired workers whether or not the worker has a hearing aid), and/or large print materials or other alternate formats. What is reasonable is often determined on a case-by-case basis. Hanson v. Lucky Stores, Inc. (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 215. Gelfo v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 34.
- 2 CCR 11069a. See also California Government Code 12940. Scotch v. Art Institute of California-Orange County, Inc. (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 986. Jensen v. Wells Fargo Bank (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 245.
- California Government Code 12940m1. Note that the accommodation does not necessarily have to be the most expensive option. Hankins v. The Gap, Inc. (6th Cir. 1996) 84 F.3d 797.
- 2 CCR 11065e. Lui v. San Francisco (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 962. 42 U.S.C. § 12111. 2 CCR 11069.
- California Government Code 12926(j) and (m). See also 2 CCR 11065(d)(1)(2).
- CA Government Code 12926j1B.
- California Government Code 12940m1. Soria v. Univision Radio Los Angeles, Inc. (2016) 5 Cal.App.5th 570; Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club, Inc. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1019. Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc. (2008) 42 Cal.4th 920.
- CA Government Code 12926u. See also Brown v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Eight, 2021) 60 Cal. App. 5th 1092.
- See same. See also 2 CCR 11065r.
- See also Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Govt. Code 12960.
- See Roby v. McKesson Corp.(2009) 47 Cal.4th 686.
- See Diego v. Pilgrim United Church of Christ (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 913.