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Reasonable Accommodation – Or Not?

Posted in: Truckstop Business, Human Resources

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/// Guest post by contributor Jerry Leemkuil, Federated Insurance

Reasonable Accommodation – Or Not?

Today Federated Insurance is sharing one of our “HR Questions of the Month” regarding employment-related practices liability issues. 

Question: An employee came back from the chiropractor with a handout of specific ergonomic measurements for her work station, stating that the employee’s back problem - a previous condition – is being exacerbated by what she is doing at work. The company’s office is state of the art, and designed with ergonomic considerations. The employee sits at a station to type, and turns her head to address patients, versus turning her chair and whole body. The employee also wants to have the computer screen higher, despite the desk and screen currently being set at the proper height. The company feels that the issues are caused by the employee not using the equipment properly, versus facilities that are being provided. What does the company need to document or purchase now, to ensure it does not get a future claim for the employee’s back issue?

Response: Generally employers are required to provide a safe and healthful work environment under OSHA, including appropriate chairs and workstations for employees who do their work seated. This does not mean that the employer has to buy the most expensive chair and equipment available. Rather, a chair and workstation, including a computer screen and keyboard, that are well-designed and appropriately adjusted, even if moderately or even inexpensively priced, will still fit the bill of contributing to a safe and productive workstation. For more information, please see OSHA's excellent guidance on the subject here.

If, however, the employee is disabled -- as may be the case if the employee suffers from a back condition -- and needs accommodation in the form of a more ergonomically sound chair and/or workstation than what is currently provided, an employer may need to change (or upgrade) the chair or workstation, or perhaps look into less expensive options such as supportive pillows, cushions, articulating keyboard drawer, monitor riser, foot stools etc., if doing so is reasonable. The employer may require medical documentation to assist in determining whether the employee has a disability and if so, to support the employee’s need for reasonable accommodation. If the employee is not disabled, the employer is not required by law to provide an accommodation. As I mentioned, though, the employer does have an obligation to ensure that the employee is still provided an appropriate chair and workstation as every other employee should be provided. If the employee is disabled, then she would be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act if she needed one in order to perform the essential functions of her job. Keep in mind that a reasonable accommodation for purposes of the ADA is not necessarily one the employee wants (such as a brand new or certain brand of equipment, chair or workstation) if there is another, less expensive option available (i.e., cushions, foot rest, modifications to the existing chair and workstation, etc.) that achieves the same result. However, denying an accommodation altogether because the expense of doing so is not in the budget may create exposure to a potential failure-to-accommodate claim under discrimination laws, particularly if the accommodation would not, in fact, cause the employer to suffer "significant difficulty or expense."

The employer in this instance should engage the employee in an interactive discussion to explore these options. For more information, please see this and see also this for specific assistance in exploring accommodations to back conditions.

{Guest Post} Guest post provided by Jerry Leemkuil, Federated Insurance. For more than a century, Federated Insurance Companies has provided peace of mind to business owners through valued insurance protection. Learn more about Federated Insurance.

The opinions and advice given by guest post contributors are not necessarily those of NATSO Inc. The posts should not be considered legal advice. Qualified professionals should be sought regarding advice and questions specific to your circumstances.

This article is intended to provide general information and recommendations regarding risk prevention only. There is no guarantee that this information will result in reduced losses, lower premiums, or lower experience modification factors. The content provided is accurate as of February 2015 and is subject to change. This information may be subject to regulations and restrictions in your state and should not be considered legal advice. Qualified counsel should be sought regarding questions specific to your circumstances and applicable state laws. © 2016 Advisors Law Group, All Rights Reserved

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About the Author

Jerry Leemkuil

Jerry Leemkuil

Jerry Leemkuil is Field Manager in the Association Risk Management Services Department at Federated Insurance. In his current role, Jerry oversees relationships with over 150 recommending associations and numerous prospect associations.  He has provided professional presentations to many of the association partners Federated works with, including numerous “Affordable Care Act” updates.

During Jerry's 23 years with Federated, he has worked exclusively in the marketing and association relationship areas. He has coordinated and developed many of Federated’s association relationships across the country. Prior to being named Field Manager in Association Risk Management Services, Jerry spearheaded the development of the Commercial Health Team. 

Jerry, his wife Lisa, and their two daughters reside in Owatonna, MN.