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Unreasonable accommodation?

I have an employee with diabetes who recently requested that I put a refrigerator in the office so that the employee can store their insulin. It seems like an expensive proposition to me — do I need to buy and run a refrigerator in the office for one person’s medicine?

Whether an employer must provide a refrigerator for an employee’s insulin may be a narrowly construed issue about which professionals might disagree. The safest course of action is to provide the refrigerator if it does not present an undue burden, or to allow the employee to bring their own fridge and keep it powered at work.

The Americans With Disabilities Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibit employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. Employers must make reasonable accommodations to otherwise qualified employees, unless such accommodation would cause undue hardship. Employers may not deny employment because of an otherwise-qualified employee’s need for reasonable accommodations.

A reasonable accommodation is a modification to the workplace that enables someone to perform their essential job functions, or enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. Equal treatment doesn’t always yield equal results, which can result in discrimination against persons with disabilities.

The duty to provide reasonable accommodations is ongoing and applies to all phases of employment, but does not apply to persons who are not otherwise qualified for a position. Typically, an employee will request accommodation, but liability may also arise where a disability can be imputed from the circumstances.

The employer and employee must engage in a good faith, interactive process, where the employee communicates their needs and the employer provides an effective accommodation. The employee usually proposes an appropriate accommodation.

An employee may ask for an accommodation for several reasons, including to obtain medical treatment, recover from an illness, or receive training associated with their disability. An indefinite leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation, and employers are not required to hold a job open indefinitely.

Accommodations may include: retrofitting facilities to make them accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities; restructuring a job by either switching essential functions of the job with another position, or changing when and how the functions are done; modifying a job schedule; reassignment to a different position; obtaining or modifying equipment; and allowing an employee to provide their own equipment or services.

If you need assistance with accommodating an employee with disabilities, visit the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) at AskJAN.org. JAN is a free service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Mary Luros is a business law attorney with Hudson & Luros LLP in Napa, and can be reached at mary@hudsonluros.com. The information provided here is not legal advice, nor does it form an attorney-client relationship with the author. The author makes no representations as to the reliability or accuracy of the above information.

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