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Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, guarantees your right to a reasonable workplace accommodation for a qualifying disability or medical condition. FEHA can be found in California Government Code section 12940.

What Qualifies as a Disability or Medical Condition?

Any physical or mental condition that limits at least one major life activity.

Example: Jesse sprained her ankle. For 2 weeks, she is unable to climb stairs. She has a physical condition that limits a major life activity and is entitled to a reasonable accommodation.
What is an Accommodation?

An accommodation is a modification of your working conditions which allows you to perform the essential functions of your job that you would otherwise be unable to perform.

Example: Jesse’s desk is located on the second floor of the office. Since she cannot climb stairs, she has asked her employer to let her work on the first floor for the next two weeks. This is a modification to her working conditions that she has requested as an accommodation.

What Makes an Accommodation “Reasonable”?

An accommodation is reasonable if:

  1. It allows an employee to perform the essential functions of her job, and
  2. Providing the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Example 1: Julia is a bartender in Berkeley, California who works at night. Once a week, there is a staff meeting in the morning. Because she is undergoing regular chemotherapy, Julia has requested not to attend these meetings. Instead, she has asked the owner of the bar to e-mail her a summary of the meetings. Julia’s request is reasonable because attending the meeting is not an essential function of her job, and preparing an e-mail once a week is not too difficult for her employer.

Example 2: Ibrahim is a data entry clerk for a mid-sized firm in San Francisco, California. His job requires use of a keyboard. Due to a wrist injury, he cannot use the keyboard for more than 20 minutes every hour. He has requested his employer buy him a voice-to-text system so he can type less and still do his job. His employer can reasonably afford the technology. Ibrahim’s request is reasonable.

Example 3: Melvin is diagnosed with PTSD. The color orange is very traumatic to him. He works in a large retail store with hundreds of orange products, orange walls, and customers who sometimes wear orange. He requests that the orange products are removed, the walls are repainted, and a dress code is enforced as customers enter. His request is not reasonable because, although it would allow him to perform the essential functions of his job, it could be unduly burdensome with respect to cost, time, inconvenience to customers, and disruption to the store’s operations.

Example 4: Valerie is a professional singer at night clubs throughout the Bay Area. In the middle of a tour, she requires an emergency tracheotomy, and is unable to use her vocal cords for 3 months while she recovers. She asks her employer, a very successful record label, to pay her for the rest of the tour while she lip-synchs to her own songs. This may not be too burdensome for the employer, which has many resources and may prefer not to cancel the tour entirely. However, the employer would have a good argument that singing is an essential function of her job, and this accommodation would not allow her to perform that function. Therefore, her request may not be reasonable.

How do I Ask for an Accommodation?

Any request for your employer to take certain action or make certain changes because of a medical condition is a request for an accommodation. This request can come from you, or your healthcare provider. It can be oral or in writing. Most employment lawyers would suggest you make requests in writing, preferably by e-mail so there is a permanent record. You need not use the word “accommodation” in your request. Courts will consider whether what you said or asked for could be reasonably understood as a request for an accommodation.

Example: Lanay told her immediate supervisor that she was just diagnosed with an ulcer and needs to work from home for one week. This could reasonably be understood as her request for an accommodation.

What Must My Employer do if I Ask for an Accommodation?

Your employer has two legal options:

  1. Grant the accommodation you asked for because it is reasonable, or
  2. Begin a good-faith, interactive process with you to find an alternative accommodation that would be more reasonable.
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