What is the “Interactive Process” and Why Employers Need to Know the Answer

By Rudman Winchell Attorney Matthew Cobb

 

The “interactive process” is an important component of disability laws under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA). The ADA and the MHRA require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. The interactive process is the process by which employers and employees identify and select these reasonable accommodations. The “process” envisioned by disability laws and regulations is one where the employer and employee sit down together and discuss accommodations that will allow the employee to continue performing the normal, essential functions of his or her job without overburdening the employer financially or otherwise in doing so. Importantly, an employer’s failure to engage in this process may be considered disability discrimination under disability laws and regulations and can therefore expose an employer to liability.    

Once an employee has put his employer on notice that a reasonable accommodation is needed, an employer must, in good faith, informally work with the employee to identify an accommodation that will allow the employee to continue performing his job, and that is reasonable in light of the situation. Reasonable accommodations include, for example, periods of leave from work or modifications to job schedules. An employer is not required to provide an accommodation that would impose an “undue hardship”; in other words, an accommodation that would require the employer to incur a substantial expense or one that is very difficult for the employer to provide. Even so, the employer’s burden of demonstrating an “undue hardship” tends to be a high one, and is not easily met.

An employee’s requested accommodation must be a reasonable one, and must relate to his disability. The accommodation must enable the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his job. An accommodation is not unreasonable simply because it requires the employer to incur some additional expense. A request for a different sized desk for an employee with a wheelchair would be one example of a reasonable accommodation that may require the employer to incur some expense. If, however, one accommodation would cost $2,000 to implement and an equally effective accommodation would cost $200 to implement, the employer can select the $200 accommodation. In some instances, a request for a reasonable accommodation may be as simple as an employee requesting two or three weeks off to receive treatment for a physical or mental ailment.  

Good faith communication between and the employer and employee concerning reasonable accommodations for the employee’s disability is the central theme of the “interactive process.” Through such communications, employers and employees can identify and implement accommodations to disabilities that are efficient and feasible for the employer, and allow an employee to continue performing the essential functions of his or her job. Simply put, the interactive process allows an employer and employee to identify and implement options that address a disabled employee’s limitation(s) that work best for both parties. Utilizing the interactive process also goes a long way towards keeping an employer from running afoul of disability discrimination laws. For more information on the interactive process and reasonable accommodations, see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Enforcement Guidance on those topics.  

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