I had surgery recently that left me with severe swelling in my leg. My job requires that I stand for prolonged periods as a machinist. The doctor gave me a total of eight weeks off for disability. I do not think I can return to the same occupation because of the amount of swelling in my leg. Can my employer terminate me because I can't stand on my leg for long periods of time? Or do they have to accomodate me with another position for which I am physically able to perform?
1 Answer from Attorneys
In order to be required to explore reasonable accommodaiton, your condition must be one that is "legally," a disability. The ADA defines disability as follows:
The Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA) has a three-part definition of disability. Under ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; OR (2) has a record of such an impairment; OR (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.
A physical impairment is defined by ADA as "any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine."
If your condition is a disability and you request a reasonable accommodaiton, the law requires your employer to explore whether or not such accommodation will help you perform your essential job functions. The ADA provides that reassignment is a form of reasonable accommodation. The EEOC, which enforces the ADA provides the following with respect to reassignment:
The ADA specifically lists "reassignment to a vacant position" as a form of reasonable accommodation.(76) This type of reasonable accommodation must be provided to an employee who, because of a disability, can no longer perform the essential functions of his/her current position, with or without reasonable accommodation, unless the employer can show that it would be an undue hardship.(77)
An employee must be "qualified" for the new position. An employee is "qualified" for a position if s/he: (1) satisfies the requisite skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of the position, and (2) can perform the essential functions of the new position, with or without reasonable accommodation.(78) The employee does not need to be the best qualified individual for the position in order to obtain it as a reassignment.
There is no obligation for the employer to assist the individual to become qualified. Thus, the employer does not have to provide training so that the employee acquires necessary skills to take a job.(79) The employer, however, would have to provide an employee with a disability who is being reassigned with any training that is normally provided to anyone hired for or transferred to the position.
Example A: An employer is considering reassigning an employee with a disability to a position which requires the ability to speak Spanish in order to perform an essential function. The employee never learned Spanish and wants the employer to send him to a course to learn Spanish. The employer is not required to provide this training as part of the obligation to make a reassignment. Therefore, the employee is not qualified for this position.
Example B: An employer is considering reassigning an employee with a disability to a position in which she will contract for goods and services. The employee is qualified for the position. The employer has its own specialized rules regarding contracting that necessitate training all individuals hired for these positions. In this situation, the employer must provide the employee with this specialized training.
Before considering reassignment as a reasonable accommodation, employers should first consider those accommodations that would enable an employee to remain in his/her current position. Reassignment is the reasonable accommodation of last resort and is required only after it has been determined that: (1) there are no effective accommodations that will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his/her current position, or (2) all other reasonable accommodations would impose an undue hardship.(80) However, if both the employer and the employee voluntarily agree that transfer is preferable to remaining in the current position with some form of reasonable accommodation, then the employer may transfer the employee.
"Vacant" means that the position is available when the employee asks for reasonable accommodation, or that the employer knows that it will become available within a reasonable amount of time. A "reasonable amount of time" should be determined on a case-by-case basis considering relevant facts, such as whether the employer, based on experience, can anticipate that an appropriate position will become vacant within a short period of time.(81) A position is considered vacant even if an employer has posted a notice or announcement seeking applications for that position. The employer does not have to bump an employee from a job in order to create a vacancy; nor does it have to create a new position.(82)
Example C: An employer is seeking a reassignment for an employee with a disability. There are no vacant positions today, but the employer has just learned that another employee resigned and that that position will become vacant in four weeks. The impending vacancy is equivalent to the position currently held by the employee with a disability. If the employee is qualified for that position, the employer must offer it to him.
Example D: An employer is seeking a reassignment for an employee with a disability. There are no vacant positions today, but the employer has just learned that an employee in an equivalent position plans to retire in six months. Although the employer knows that the employee with a disability is qualified for this position, the employer does not have to offer this position to her because six months is beyond a "reasonable amount of time." (If, six months from now, the employer decides to advertise the position, it must allow the individual to apply for that position and give the application the consideration it deserves.)
The employer must reassign the individual to a vacant position that is equivalent in terms of pay, status, or other relevant factors (e.g., benefits, geographical location) if the employee is qualified for the position. If there is no vacant equivalent position, the employer must reassign the employee to a vacant lower level position for which the individual is qualified. Assuming there is more than one vacancy for which the employee is qualified, the employer must place the individual in the position that comes closest to the employee's current position in terms of pay, status, etc.(83)If it is unclear which position comes closest, the employer should consult with the employee about his/her preference before determining the position to which the employee will be reassigned. Reassignment does not include giving an employee a promotion. Thus, an employee must compete for any vacant position that would constitute a promotion.