Rand L. Stephens & Richard Koss

Disabled California Workers and the Interactive Process

Disabled woman in wheelchair at work

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prevents employers from discriminating against workers based on a “physical disability, mental disability, [or] medical condition,” among other characteristics. FEHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) both require that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified employees with a disability, provided that the employer doesn’t suffer an “undue hardship” as a result of the accommodation.

In broad strokes, if a worker is still qualified to do the most important parts of the job but needs certain modifications or “reasonable accommodations” to the terms of or duties entailed in the job, the employer must provide them, unless modifications would be too difficult or costly for the employer… Employers who refuse to discuss options for reasonable accommodations violate the law and could become the target of a lawsuit. Read on to learn more about the types of discussions on accommodations the law requires, known as the “interactive process.”

Beginning the interactive process

The interactive process begins with the employer learning that their employee has a disability or condition that limits the worker’s abilities on the job. The best way for the employer to learn is for the employee to  tell their supervisor or HR department that they need a reasonable accommodation to do their job. Additionally, if the employer becomes aware that an employee needs an accommodation through other means aside from an employee’s request, such as on-the-job observations or an employee exhausting available medical leave, the employer will also become obligated to begin a conversation with the employee about possible accommodations.

Determining both the employer and employee’s needs

Once the need for accommodations is evident, the employer will need to determine what tasks are essential to the employee’s role, and discuss “in good faith” possible accommodations that would allow the worker to continue performing those essential functions. If the employee has suggested accommodations already in mind, the employer will need to consider them seriously. If the employer finds that they aren’t workable, they should be prepared to discuss possible alternatives. The employee should be prepared to provide documentation from a qualified physician describing the basis for the accommodation request. Should an employer determine that no accommodation exists that would not result in an undue hardship for the employer, they will need to be able to defend that conclusion with evidence.

Discussions must be ongoing

The interactive process isn’t designed to consist of a single meeting, permanently locking both the employer and employee into a set of terms. Over time, the nature of the employee’s disability could change, requiring different accommodations than previously arranged. Additionally, the employer may realize that the essential functions of the role are no longer being performed with the accommodations in place. Both workers and employers should be prepared to discuss alternatives if existing accommodations don’t meet their needs. 

This area of California employment law is nuanced and complex, and what constitutes a reasonable accommodation, undue hardship, or good faith effort at the interactive process is dictated by decades of California case law. Speak with an experienced California employment attorney if you have additional questions.

For assistance with a California employment disability discrimination claim, or another claim regarding discrimination in the workplace, contact the seasoned and effective Bay Area employment lawyers Richard Koss and Rand Stephens for a consultation in Redwood at 650-722-7046, or in Antioch at 925-757-1700.

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