California employers have a legal duty to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities to help them perform their 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 a disabled employee to leave work to attend doctor appointments,
- buying equipment to better accommodate the worker, and/or
- restructuring the employee’s 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 the employee 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 lawyers will highlight 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?
1. What is a reasonable accommodation in California?
California employment law imposes a duty of “reasonable accommodation” on an employer when it learns that an employee has a certain known disability.
In this situation, the employer has a legal duty to:
- reasonably accommodate, or provide for, the disabled employee, and
- do so in a manner that allows the worker to perform his or her 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 a disability, California law requires:
- the employer to enter into an “interactive process” with the employee, and
- do so to help find an appropriate accommodation.4
An “interactive process” refers to communication between the employer and employee that:
- helps the employer find the right accommodation, and
- ensures that it assists the employee in performing the essential functions of his or her job.5
Note too that if an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer must respond to it in a timely fashion and must act in good faith.6
2. What qualifies as reasonable accommodation?
An employer makes a “reasonable accommodation” when it makes appropriate adjustments so that the disabled employee can perform his/her essential functions of the job.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:
- the disabled employee’s job description,
- the basic job duties of the employee,
- the training materials applicable to the job, and
- the employer’s experience with other similarly situated employees.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 an employee’s disability and increase accessibility,
- job restructuring or alterations in work schedules to make changes in an employee’s essential functions,
- letting an employee 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 the employee to a vacant position,
- bringing an assistive dog to the office,
- an unpaid leave of absence, and
- relaxing work restrictions for the disabled employee.
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 accommodations to help him perform his job tasks given his disability.
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 reasonable accommodations.
3. What is a disability?
California employment law does not require employers to comply with every accommodation request made by an employer 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 a person’s major life activity.9 A condition limits a major life activity if it makes it more difficult for a person 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 (e.g., a bipolar disorder or other mental impairment), or
- a physical disability (e.g., migraines), or
- a medical condition, defined as either 1) cancer, or 2) genetic characteristics associated with increased risk of developing a disease or disorder11
4. Can an employer deny reasonable accommodation?
Employers have a duty to provide for reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee 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 an employee’s 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 (e.g., 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
Note that disabled employees who do not ask for an accommodation – and do poor work – can be terminated. The employee has the responsibility to ask for accommodations.
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 the employee 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, an employee should have requested a reasonable accommodation from the employer. If there is no resolution, the employee can file a complaint with either the EEOC or the DFEH.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 an employee 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 the employee’s pay below the minimum wage.
For additional help…
Need additional 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.
See also the Job Accommodations Network (JAN).
Disclaimer: Results cannot be guaranteed.
- California Government Code 12940m1.
- See same.
- California Government Code 12926d.
- 2 CCR 11068a. See also California Government Code 12940n.
- Wilson v. County of Orange (2009) 169 Cal.App.4th 1185.
- 2 CCR 11069a. See also California Government Code 12940.
- California Government Code 12940m1.
- 2 CCR 11065e.
- California Government Code 12926(j) and (m). See also 2 CCR 11065(d)(1)(2).
- CA Government Code 12926j1B.
- California Government Code 12940m1.
- 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.