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Understanding Undue Hardship and the Complexities of Workplace Accommodations Under the ADA

TL;DR The article explains how the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees unless doing so causes undue hardship, which is defined by factors like cost and business impact. It emphasizes a case-by-case approach to determining undue hardship, considering both employer capabilities and employee needs, to balance the rights of disabled individuals with the operational realities of businesses.

Team Disclo
January 26, 2024

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

In employment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stands as a bulwark, ensuring that persons with disabilities are not denied their rightful place in the workforce. Central to the ADA is the concept of 'reasonable accommodation,' a principle that mandates employers to modify or adjust the work environment and job functions to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to perform their duties. However, this mandate has its limits. The concept of 'undue hardship' serves as a critical counterbalance, delineating the extent to which employers are required to accommodate.


The Intersection of Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship

Under Title I of the ADA, employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to employees or job applicants with disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination, defines undue hardship as an action requiring "significant difficulty or expense" in relation to the size of the employer, the resources available, and the nature of the operation.


Case-by-Case Determination of Undue Hardship

What constitutes undue hardship cannot be painted with a broad brush; it must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Factors like the cost of the accommodation, the overall financial resources of the facility, the number of persons employed, the effect on expenses and resources, and the type of operation are all considered in this assessment. Considering so many factors, what may be an “undue hardship” for one employer may not be for a different employer. 


Examples of Undue Hardship

  1. Significant Restructuring of Job Duties: If an accommodation request involves substantially restructuring a job’s essential functions, this might be deemed an undue hardship. For instance, if a job's primary role is data entry and the accommodation involves eliminating this task, it could fundamentally change the job’s nature, effectively creating a new job role the employer did not plan to have.
  2. Excessive Cost Relative to Employer's Size: For a small business, the cost of an accommodation might be too high relative to their overall financial resources. If the accommodation, such as expensive specialized equipment, represents a significant portion of the company's budget, it could be considered an undue hardship.
  3. Impact on Other Employees: Accommodations that overly burden co-workers or significantly disrupt work schedules can be considered undue hardship. For example, if accommodating one employee requires others to work overtime consistently, this might be considered excessively disruptive. 
  4. Operation of the Facility: Changes that significantly impact the facility's operation, such as significant modifications to the building for a single employee, can be considered undue hardship, especially if they affect the facility's ability to function efficiently.
  5. Overall Impact on Business Operations: If an accommodation request significantly impairs the overall operation of the business, it may be deemed an undue hardship. This could include scenarios where accommodating one employee severely hinders the business's ability to serve its customers.


Legal Considerations and Disclaimer

Employers should approach the accommodation process carefully and consult legal advice as needed. Determining undue hardship is complex and can vary greatly depending on individual circumstances, employer size, and financial resources, among other factors. The Supreme Court and other courts have guided this, but each case is unique. Employers need to understand that this article does not constitute legal advice and that they should consult with legal professionals to address specific situations.


Accommodation Process: Balancing Needs and Capabilities

The accommodation process is collaborative, involving both the employer and the disabled employee or job applicant. This process often requires analyzing the essential functions of the job and the specific impairment to determine the best possible accommodation. The goal is to find an effective solution that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of their job without causing undue hardship to the employer.


Legal Landmarks: Supreme Court Interpretations

Various Supreme Court rulings have shaped the interpretation of undue hardship. These decisions have emphasized the need for a holistic view, considering both the financial burden and the impact on the operation of the business. Employers are encouraged to consider all possible sources of financial assistance, such as tax credits or deductions, before declaring an accommodation as an undue hardship.


Special Considerations for Small Businesses

The determination of undue hardship often becomes more nuanced for small businesses. Given their limited resources and smaller workforce, what constitutes a significant expense or disruption might differ from that of larger corporations. The EEOC acknowledges this and recommends that small businesses evaluate each accommodation request carefully, considering their unique circumstances.


Cooperative Dialogue: The Path Forward

The best approach to addressing accommodation needs is through open and cooperative dialogue. Employers should engage in a flexible, interactive process with the employee to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.

Read more: What is the Interactive Process under the ADA?


Documenting the Decision-Making Process

Employers are advised to document the decision-making process when evaluating accommodation requests. This documentation should include the nature of the accommodation requested, the decision made, and the reasons for determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship. Such records can be crucial in the event of legal scrutiny.


Conclusion: A Balance of Rights and Responsibilities

The concept of undue hardship in the context of the ADA represents a careful balance between the rights of persons with disabilities and the legitimate interests of employers. While the ADA seeks to ensure that disabled employees are not deprived of employment opportunities, it also recognizes the practical limitations and challenges that employers may face. By requiring that undue hardship be determined on a case-by-case basis, the law allows for a flexible approach that considers the diverse and dynamic nature of the workplace.


Related Resources


About Disclo

Built by 2x disability-focused founders, the software is a workplace ADA and PWFA accommodations platform for progressive companies focused on making workplaces inclusive for everyone. Disclo is a HIPAA-compliant platform that requests, tracks, and manages workplace accommodations—all in one place. 

Disclo makes handling accommodations seamless by combining automation, in-app medical e-verification, out-of-the-box analytics (so you can auto-track against EEOC and ADA standards), and the ability to connect to any HRIS and ATS with pre-built integrations.

Strengthen workplace inclusivity and future-proof ADA and PWFA processes while establishing a digital paper trail for your organization. Learn more at disclo.com/demo.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

In employment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stands as a bulwark, ensuring that persons with disabilities are not denied their rightful place in the workforce. Central to the ADA is the concept of 'reasonable accommodation,' a principle that mandates employers to modify or adjust the work environment and job functions to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to perform their duties. However, this mandate has its limits. The concept of 'undue hardship' serves as a critical counterbalance, delineating the extent to which employers are required to accommodate.


The Intersection of Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship

Under Title I of the ADA, employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to employees or job applicants with disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination, defines undue hardship as an action requiring "significant difficulty or expense" in relation to the size of the employer, the resources available, and the nature of the operation.


Case-by-Case Determination of Undue Hardship

What constitutes undue hardship cannot be painted with a broad brush; it must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Factors like the cost of the accommodation, the overall financial resources of the facility, the number of persons employed, the effect on expenses and resources, and the type of operation are all considered in this assessment. Considering so many factors, what may be an “undue hardship” for one employer may not be for a different employer. 


Examples of Undue Hardship

  1. Significant Restructuring of Job Duties: If an accommodation request involves substantially restructuring a job’s essential functions, this might be deemed an undue hardship. For instance, if a job's primary role is data entry and the accommodation involves eliminating this task, it could fundamentally change the job’s nature, effectively creating a new job role the employer did not plan to have.
  2. Excessive Cost Relative to Employer's Size: For a small business, the cost of an accommodation might be too high relative to their overall financial resources. If the accommodation, such as expensive specialized equipment, represents a significant portion of the company's budget, it could be considered an undue hardship.
  3. Impact on Other Employees: Accommodations that overly burden co-workers or significantly disrupt work schedules can be considered undue hardship. For example, if accommodating one employee requires others to work overtime consistently, this might be considered excessively disruptive. 
  4. Operation of the Facility: Changes that significantly impact the facility's operation, such as significant modifications to the building for a single employee, can be considered undue hardship, especially if they affect the facility's ability to function efficiently.
  5. Overall Impact on Business Operations: If an accommodation request significantly impairs the overall operation of the business, it may be deemed an undue hardship. This could include scenarios where accommodating one employee severely hinders the business's ability to serve its customers.


Legal Considerations and Disclaimer

Employers should approach the accommodation process carefully and consult legal advice as needed. Determining undue hardship is complex and can vary greatly depending on individual circumstances, employer size, and financial resources, among other factors. The Supreme Court and other courts have guided this, but each case is unique. Employers need to understand that this article does not constitute legal advice and that they should consult with legal professionals to address specific situations.


Accommodation Process: Balancing Needs and Capabilities

The accommodation process is collaborative, involving both the employer and the disabled employee or job applicant. This process often requires analyzing the essential functions of the job and the specific impairment to determine the best possible accommodation. The goal is to find an effective solution that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of their job without causing undue hardship to the employer.


Legal Landmarks: Supreme Court Interpretations

Various Supreme Court rulings have shaped the interpretation of undue hardship. These decisions have emphasized the need for a holistic view, considering both the financial burden and the impact on the operation of the business. Employers are encouraged to consider all possible sources of financial assistance, such as tax credits or deductions, before declaring an accommodation as an undue hardship.

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Special Considerations for Small Businesses

The determination of undue hardship often becomes more nuanced for small businesses. Given their limited resources and smaller workforce, what constitutes a significant expense or disruption might differ from that of larger corporations. The EEOC acknowledges this and recommends that small businesses evaluate each accommodation request carefully, considering their unique circumstances.


Cooperative Dialogue: The Path Forward

The best approach to addressing accommodation needs is through open and cooperative dialogue. Employers should engage in a flexible, interactive process with the employee to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.

Read more: What is the Interactive Process under the ADA?


Documenting the Decision-Making Process

Employers are advised to document the decision-making process when evaluating accommodation requests. This documentation should include the nature of the accommodation requested, the decision made, and the reasons for determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship. Such records can be crucial in the event of legal scrutiny.


Conclusion: A Balance of Rights and Responsibilities

The concept of undue hardship in the context of the ADA represents a careful balance between the rights of persons with disabilities and the legitimate interests of employers. While the ADA seeks to ensure that disabled employees are not deprived of employment opportunities, it also recognizes the practical limitations and challenges that employers may face. By requiring that undue hardship be determined on a case-by-case basis, the law allows for a flexible approach that considers the diverse and dynamic nature of the workplace.


Related Resources


About Disclo

Built by 2x disability-focused founders, the software is a workplace ADA and PWFA accommodations platform for progressive companies focused on making workplaces inclusive for everyone. Disclo is a HIPAA-compliant platform that requests, tracks, and manages workplace accommodations—all in one place. 

Disclo makes handling accommodations seamless by combining automation, in-app medical e-verification, out-of-the-box analytics (so you can auto-track against EEOC and ADA standards), and the ability to connect to any HRIS and ATS with pre-built integrations.

Strengthen workplace inclusivity and future-proof ADA and PWFA processes while establishing a digital paper trail for your organization. Learn more at disclo.com/demo.

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