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Making Sense of the ADA, FMLA, and Reasonable Accommodations

A detailed overview of how these complex employment laws can intersect, confusing some employers.

Many employers have had experience with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee leave law,.and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an anti-discrimination law.  However, where these laws intersect still creates confusion, and failure to comply with these laws is a risky and potentially expensive pitfall. 

The ADA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s disability and requires certain employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. The FMLA provides employees of covered employers with twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year to deal with the employee’s own medical condition or to care for a sick family member.

Under the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations can take many forms.  The accommodation will depend on the situation and the worker’s needs. To illustrate, accommodations can include modifying existing facilities, exams or training materials and restructuring jobs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in its role as the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, has stated that the underlying purpose of the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation is to require employers to change the way things are customarily done to enable employees with disabilities to work.

The ADA, however, does not require employers to make accommodations that would cause them significant difficulty or expense. The EEOC has explained some of the factors that will determine whether a particular accommodation presents an undue hardship on an employer.  Those factors include the nature and cost of the accommodation, the financial resources of the employer, and the nature of the business, including size, composition, and structure, among other things.

Employers should beware: Proving that an accommodation creates an undue hardship is not as easy as simply claiming financial difficulty alone. Courts will look at other sources of money when determining whether or not an accommodation creates an undue hardship.

The ADA and FMLA intersect, as disabilities under the ADA commonly qualify as a serious health condition under the FMLA. During FMLA leave, covered employers must continue employee health insurance benefits and restore employees to the same or equivalent job positions when the leave has ended.

Eligible employees under the FMLA can take up to 12 weeks of leave for treatment of or recovery from serious health conditions. The FMLA’s definition of a serious health condition is broader than the definition of a disability, and includes pregnancy and many illnesses, injuries, impairments, or physical or mental conditions that require multiple treatments and intermittent absences.

When employees need time off because of a medical or disability-related issue, they may have rights under both the FMLA and the ADA. For example, an accident or injury that requires hospitalization or incapacitates an employee for more than three consecutive calendar days and requires continuing treatment by a healthcare provider generally qualifies as a serious health condition under the FMLA. If the injury ripens into a permanent impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, the employee could be entitled to additional leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

To make matters more complicated, many states have enacted their own medical leave laws, some of which provide greater benefits than what is provided by the FMLA. When employees are covered by both federal and state family and medical leave laws, they are entitled to the greater benefit or more generous rights provided under the law.

Figuring out where the ADA and the FMLA intersect and what the employer’s obligations are can present a challenge. When employers are faced with questions regarding medical-related leave, they should evaluate the employee’s circumstances under each law separately. Employers should then determine which laws cover the employee’s circumstances. For example, if the employee has a serious health condition, the FMLA will apply.  However, if the condition is short-term or temporary, it may not meet the ADA’s definition of disability.  Every situation will be different, and evaluations should be on a case-by-case basis.

The employer should also evaluate what benefits under the relevant laws are owed to the employee. As described above, when more than one law applies, employers must provide leave under whichever law provides the greater rights and benefits to the employee. If the employee is entitled to reinstatement, employers should consider whether there are obligations to provide any reasonable accommodations, such as reassignment to a vacant position or a modified work schedule.  Also, before denying a worker’s request for further leave under the ADA, remember that the interactive process – the process whereby the employer and employee communicate with each other about the impact of the disability on the performance of the essential functions of his or her job – might  also reveal an effective reasonable accommodation.

The ADA and FMLA can be challenging and confusing. However, analyzing each situation separately, being consistent when managing the process, and keeping the lines of communication between employees and management open helps to lead to compliant decision making.