Protecting Workers’ Rights

Focusing on the Rights of Federal Employees

Employers exaggerate the cost of disability accommodations

Employers often balk at the perceived cost or hassles of complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. This is true even in the public sector, where government agencies sometimes refuse to make reasonable accommodations for federal employees.

An ongoing study by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) finds that the cost of making the workplace accessible or job duties feasible is usually less than $500. In fact, the majority of the time the cost is zero. Yet many employers refuse to engage in a good faith effort, leading to needless friction or lawsuits for violating the ADA.

Most workplace accommodations do not cost much or anything at all

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) interviewed over 2,300 employers, most of whom had requested assistance with retaining or promoting a disabled employee. Of employers in the JAN survey who were able to provide a monetary breakdown:

  • 59 percent said the accommodation cost nothing
  • 36 percent cited a one-time expenditure with a median cost of $500
  • 3 percent cited an ongoing annual cost

Disability accommodations are not always a big-ticket item like building a wheelchair ramp. Examples of no-cost accommodations cited in the employer survey included allowing an employee with PTSD to bring a service animal into the workplace and exempting an employee who had a kidney disease from mandatory overtime.

Examples of low-cost accommodations included switching cleaning chemicals and purchasing an air purifier for an employee with fragrance sensitivities; purchasing a sit-stand workstation for a worker with chronic pain; and purchasing special glasses and a handheld device for a partially colorblind worker who needed to differentiate colors for one job-related duty.

The benefits outweighed the cost

The situations included new hires, but on average the employees had been with the companies for seven years. The vast majority of employers in the JAN survey reported direct benefits such as retaining a valued employee, increased productivity and attendance of that worker, cost savings of not having to train a new person, increased diversity of the workforce, and saving on insurance costs such as workers’ comp. They also cited indirect benefits, including overall productivity and morale, better safety, improved interactions with coworkers, and improved interactions with customers.

Employees must be part of the solution, too

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. The mistake that employers (including government agencies) make is flatly refusing a request because of cost estimates or preconceptions. Employers are not required to simply say “yes” to every request. An accommodation that is prohibitively expensive or otherwise unworkable may not be deemed reasonable. However, the ADA requires employers to “engage in an interactive process” to find a solution. They invite lawsuits when they stop the conversation or issue ultimatums rather than making a good faith attempt.

It goes both ways. Employees must be forthcoming and willing to compromise. In one recent case, an employee’s lawsuit for wrongful termination and failure to accommodate was dismissed by a federal court. Although his medical condition merited ADA protection, he had never informed his employer of his disabling condition and had not requested any specific accommodation. In another case, an employee initially requested a disability accommodation but then disengaged from the interactive process. She lost her lawsuit alleging failure to accommodate because the federal court determined she had abandoned her ADA request and gone back to work after not getting the accommodation she wanted.

Passman & Kaplan, P.C., represents federal employees in employment conflicts, including failure to accommodate and other forms of disability discrimination.

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