Managing the Interactive Process Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
By Bryon Bass
SVP, Disability and Absence Practice & Compliance
Today, employers must comply with federal, state, city, and county laws that govern employee leave of absence and accommodations. The challenges of these multi-layered regulatory complexities are compounded by common organizational structures and program management approaches. Many organizations still maintain departmental silos, making it difficult to consistently comply with legal mandates as well as the organization’s own internal policies and procedures. Despite these challenges, an employer can take certain steps to implement a more consistent and effective approach to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) interactive accommodation process.
The ADA interactive process helps an employer and employee work together to identify and accommodate a disabling condition that prevents the employee from performing essential functions of the job. This typically consists of an interactive dialogue between the employee, supervisor, and a human resource representative or ADA coordinator. Employers are further advised to include the employee’s heathcare provider as an additional source of information related to the impairment, potential restrictions or limitations, and guidance as to whether or not an accommodation will likely be successful.
An employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process is triggered when the employer becomes aware that the individual has a disability and has requested an accommodation. There may also be an obligation if the employer knows or should know the employee has problems with work that may be related to a disability. Additionally, when employees have exhausted their leave, whether related to an occupational or non-occupational occurrence, employers are obligated to start the interactive process.
According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, an employer should take six steps during the interactive process. These are:
- Recognize an accommodation request or a duty to start the interactive process. Employees may request an accommodation or indicate they are having a problem performing work activities and that the problem is related to a medical condition.
- Gather information. Employers need to determine what information is needed to assess the employee’s situation. In some cases, no additional information is needed; in others, the employee may need to talk with a healthcare provider to determine the impairment and restrictions. The employer should have or obtain a job description that outlines the job tasks and essential job functions.
- Explore potential accommodations including leave of absence and environmental modifications that could be made. Ask the employee what kind of accommodation would be helpful to complete job-related tasks.
- Choose the accommodation. If you have three or four options, JAN recommends asking the employee which option is preferred. The employer is not obligated to provide the employee’s preferred accommodation if it is not “reasonable,” or if a less costly accommodation is effective.
- Implement the accommodation. Ensure the selected option works as intended and offer assistance throughout implementation as needed.
- Monitor the accommodation to ensure it continues to be effective. Business processes, existing technology, and employee conditions change, and those may impact the effectiveness of the accommodation.
Leave of absence and accommodations will continue to be complex and challenge even the most experienced professionals. It is important to remain informed on current laws and proposed regulations while maintaining a thorough understanding of organizational policies and procedures. Consistency is key.