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What is 'reasonable accommodation' in the California workplace?

Many Californians with disabilities have valuable skills and talents that aren't impacted by their disability. They may simply need some accommodations, particularly if they're in a traditional workplace like an office setting, to allow them to do their job.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990, employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations" to help disabled individuals seek work and do their jobs.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) addresses issues similar to that of the ADA regarding reasonable accommodation for people with physical as well as mental disabilities. The requirements apply to any business or individual with at least five employees.

Reasonable accommodation can involve things like:

  • Providing the employee with electrical or mechanical aids
  • Moving a workspace
  • Altering work schedules
  • Changing job responsibilities

Disabled employees may also have specific rights to unpaid medical leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

Neither the ADA nor the FEHA requires employers to make accommodations for employees if doing so would present an "undue hardship" on business operations or other employees. The ADA defines "undue hardship" as "significant difficulty or expense." Ultimately, it may be up to a court to determine whether an employee's request for accommodation would indeed be such a hardship on an employer.

In California, when an employee or job applicant makes a request for reasonable accommodation or an employer otherwise becomes aware that such accommodation may be needed, that employer is required by law to begin what's called an "interactive process." This process involves assessing the limitations of the employee and the required tasks involved in the job.

While we'd like to believe that all employers would welcome a talented, motivated employee and be willing to make reasonable accommodations to allow that person to do his or her job, that's not always the case. Employers may be overwhelmed by such a request, even when applicants can help employers make the necessary accommodations because they've been making them for themselves for a long time.

If you believe that an employer hasn't acted in good faith or in a timely manner on a request for accommodation or that an employer's claim of "undue hardship" isn't valid, you may want to determine what your legal options are by consulting an attorney who's experienced in California employment law. You may be able to open a door not just for yourself, but for others.

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