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A person walking into their office with their belongings looking confused.A person walking into their office with their belongings looking confused.
A person walking into their office with their belongings looking confused.

Navigating the Return to Office and Increase in Accommodation Requests

TLDR; As employers navigate the return to the office, they must prepare for a surge in employee accommodation requests. A majority of employees expect continued flexible work arrangements, and many say they'd consider leaving their job if required to return to the office full-time.

Team Disclo
March 26, 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic has substantially altered the employment landscape, impacting everything from workspace arrangements to human resources policies. As companies navigate a return to in-person work, they're confronted with a surge in employee accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These reasonable accommodation requests range from telework options to changes in work schedules, presenting a new set of challenges and legal considerations.

The Challenge: A Surge in Requests

The pandemic has altered the landscape of work dramatically. As companies return to in-person operations, many employees are hesitant, if not outright resistant, to go back to the office. They cite a variety of reasons such as long commutes, higher efficiency while remote, childcare needs, and mental or physical health concerns. As a result, employers are seeing an upswing in requests for ongoing remote work and other accommodations, causing a new set of challenges, particularly regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported nearly 30% of ADA-related charges in 2021 dealt with mental health issues—a figure that is expected to rise as more employees return to the office. Littler, a well known employment law firm, wrote an excellent thought piece about emerging issues with ADA accommodations that companies should consider.

Disability Employment

According to the Kessler Foundation, disability employment in 2022 reached a record high, with a 37.8% participation rate among working-age people with disabilities. This suggests that not only are people with disabilities actively participating in the labor market, but employers are also becoming more inclusive.

Share of Americans with a disability who are employed graph
Share of Americans with a disability who are employed graph

Fast Company adds another layer to this narrative by pointing out that the pandemic itself has led to over 1.2 million Americans becoming disabled, including those suffering from Long COVID. This shift requires society to redefine its understanding of disability and the value of inclusion.

Quote from Fast Company

Increase in Accommodations

The past year has witnessed a 61% increase in accommodation requests. (HR Acuity) This significant surge is attributed to three key factors:

  1. The Return to Office: As offices reopen, employees are pushing back against a return to the "old normal."
  2. Expanding Definitions: The definition of what constitutes a "disability" is broadening, leading to more people being eligible for accommodations.
  3. Familiarity with Accommodations: The pandemic has made both employers and employees more knowledgeable about workplace accommodations.

Quote from Harvard Law

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Understanding ADA Protections and Requirements

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees with a disability unless it causes significant difficulty or expense for the employer ("undue hardship"). The ADA interactive process—a dialogue between employer and employee to explore accommodation options—is crucial in this regard. Employment law experts recommend documenting this process meticulously.

The U.S. Department of Labor and the Job Accommodation Network offer valuable resources for understanding the essential functions of the job and the kinds of accommodations that might be considered reasonable.

Read More: Navigating Reasonable Accommodations: Rights, Responsibilities, and Practical Solutions Under the ADA

Mental Health, Major Life Activities, and Employment Law

Since the pandemic, mental health has become a more prominent aspect of accommodation discussions. Employees who suffer from conditions like anxiety or depression can consult with a health care provider for a reasonable accommodation that would enable them to perform their job duties more effectively. Employers should take these medical conditions into account, engaging in the ADA's interactive process to find solutions that align with both company policy and employment law.

Read More: Mental Health in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide

Navigating Employee Requests and Legal Landscapes

While it may be challenging to juggle various employee requests, the cost of non-compliance is substantial. According to recent data, disability is now the number one cause for EEOC discrimination lawsuits, with settlements averaging around $200,000. Employers must also comply with EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) guidelines concerning job applicants and medical information.

Disclo Workplace

As employers see an increase in workplace accommodation requests, it is ever more important that they have a process that is legally compliant and consistent, as well as intuitive for their employees to navigate.With Disclo, employees have one place for starting an accommodation request, and employers have all the resources and guided tools they need to make a full determination on each request, staying compliant along the way. Employers can request a demo.

Final Thoughts

Accommodating the employee’s need for adjustments in the workspace or work schedule due to their health condition is not just a legal necessity but also an ethical one. The CDC, along with the U.S. Department of Labor and other health authorities, provides comprehensive resources to aid in these challenging times. Employers and HR professionals must be proactive and educated in accommodating a more diverse workforce in the new normal, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether it's adopting more flexible commuting options or hybrid worksites, accommodations are increasingly integral to employee retention and well-being. Employers should consult legal experts and make use of resources offered by the EEOC, CDC, and Job Accommodation Network to ensure they are making well-informed decisions.

By embracing the challenges and changes brought by the pandemic, employers can move toward a more inclusive and flexible work environment that not only meets legal requirements but also fosters employee well-being.

Additional Resources

Disclo has prepared many helpful articles and resources for employers and employees to reference. A few that may be of interest:

To stay updated on evolving regulations and topics of interest, subscribe to Disclo’s weekly newsletter, Full Disclosure, on LinkedIn or via email.

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