Essential Functions of a Job and Reasonable Accommodations

By: Pam Williamson, Assistant Director and Cheri Hofmann, Information Specialist and Training Director, Southeast ADA Center

Essential Functions of a Job and Reasonable Accommodations

Emma works as a housekeeping supervisor for a hotel chain. The supervisor’s position requires that she supervises the work activities of the cleaning team to ensure clean, orderly, and attractive rooms in the hotel, assigns duties, inspects work, and investigates complaints regarding housekeeping service and equipment, takes corrective action, purchases housekeeping supplies and equipment, conducts periodic inventories, screens applicants, trains new employees. The job also requires that the housekeeping supervisor be able perform a variety of cleaning activities such as sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, dusting and polishing, lift a minimum of 25 pounds, and fill in for employees who are absent.

Emma sustains a back injury that causes extreme pain when lifting, twisting, or doing push-pull movements. As result of the injury, she now has a permanent disability. After taking a leave of absence, Emma’s doctor recommends that she does not lift heavy objects, vacuum, sweep, or mop. Emma requests a reasonable accommodation that would remove these job tasks. Emma’s supervisor denies the request for reasonable accommodation stating that these tasks are essential functions of the job because she must be able to fill in for employees who are absent. Emma believes that the employer should provide the requested accommodation because she only performs the cleaning tasks on an occasional basis. Do you think Emma’s reasonable accommodation request should be granted?

Before you answer this question, let’s consider a few things.

  1. What are essential job functions?
  2. Is an employer required to remove essential functions of a job as a reasonable accommodation?
  3. Are there other things that an employer must consider if the request for reasonable accommodation request cannot be granted?

Essential job functions are the major job tasks that any person in the position must be able to do. They are the reason that a job exists. The ability to perform essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation, determines if an applicant or employee with a disability is qualified for the job. Courts have upheld that an employer may decide which functions are essential to the job. In Emma’s case, the housekeeping supervisor’s position requires that perform all cleaning tasks.

Although job descriptions are not required by the ADA, employers are encouraged to develop job descriptions to identify the essential and non-essential functions of a job. A well written job description assists the employer and employee in understanding the requirements of a position, conducting performance evaluations, and determining who is qualified for a position. If a person performs the essential functions of a job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, she is considered a qualified individual with a disability. If a person is not able to perform the essential functions of a job, even with a reasonable accommodation, the employer is not legally obligated to not hire the person or keep the person as an employee.

The hotel considers the tasks of lifting heavy objects, mopping, and buffing the floors to be essential functions of the housekeeping supervisor job. Even though these tasks are not performed daily, the housekeeping supervisor must be able to serve as a back-up when a team member is absent. Removing these cleaning tasks from a supervisor’s duties may delay room cleanings, an integral part of the hotel’s operations.

Let’s return to Emma’s story. She requested that she no longer be required to lift heavy objects, vacuum, sweep, or mop. Is this the end of it? The answer is “it depends.” When an applicant or employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer and individual should, discuss needs and identify the appropriate reasonable accommodation. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) refers to this discussion as the interactive process, a formal way of saying that the employer and employee should make a “good faith” effort to talk about the request for a reasonable accommodation. This is even more important if the employee is newly hired, recently acquired a disability, or the need for an accommodation may not be obvious. Emma and her supervisor should continue discussing other accommodation options that might allow her to continue in her position. She might be able to use an adjustable cart to stock her materials, use an auto powered mop that puts less stress on her body, use a back brace, or the supply room might be rearranged so that she can slide the materials onto her cart. If Emma is still unable to the essential functions of the job, even with accommodations, the employer may choose to terminate her.

It is important to remember that the essential functions of a job are required so that an employee perform the job he/she was hired to do. Removing the essential functions of a job is never required under the ADA. It is always to the employer’s advantage, however, to be sure to list the essential functions of a job in a job description and to discuss other reasonable accommodation options with an employee. This allows for a successful work environment for all involved.

Resources
EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)
http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html

The ADA: Your Employment Rights as an Individual with a Disability (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)
http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/ada18.html

The ADA: Your Responsibilities as an Employer (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)
http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/ada17.html

Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)
https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/fs-ada.html

What is the process to request a reasonable accommodation? (ADA National Network)
https://adata.org/faq/what-process-request-reasonable-accommodation

Employees’ Practical Guide to Requesting and Negotiating Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Job Accommodation Network)
https://askjan.org/Eeguide/EeGuide.pdf

Accommodation Ideas for Back Conditions (Job Accommodation Network)
https://askjan.org/media/back.htm


About the Authors
Cheri Hofmann is an ADA Information Specialist and Training Director for the Southeast ADA Center, a project of the Burton Blatt Institute of Syracuse University. She provides technical assistance and resources/referrals to callers from eight southeastern states on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other disability related inquiries. Ms. Hofmann also coordinates the Center's distance education, develops, and presents numerous workshops and trainings on the ADA and other disability rights issues for local, regional, and national audiences.

Pamela Williamson currently serves as the Assistant Project Director of the Southeast ADA Center, a member of the ADA National Network, and a project of the Burton Blatt Institute of Syracuse University. During the past 19 years, she has served in various roles including Project Director and Director of Training and Technical Assistance.

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