Just as the Commonwealth Court seemed to know we would be discussing the work-relatedness of injuries that occur on an employer’s premises, so too did the EEOC anticipate our presentation entitled “Your Leave is Giving Me a Migraine” by issuing guidance on May 9, 2016 addressing “Employer Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The guidance, which discusses the question of when and how leave is to be provided in cases of an employee’s disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, makes several key points for employers that we also raised at the McNees Labor seminar:
- If an employer has a leave policy, such as sick, vacation, extended, or otherwise, and whether paid or unpaid, a disabled individual must be permitted to use this existing leave in the same way any other employee would use it. Importantly, if an employee asks for leave under this policy and an employer would not normally request a doctor’s note for use by any other employee, the employer cannot require it of the disabled employee as a condition of the leave.
- In the absence of a leave policy and/or where leave has been exhausted, additional leave can be a reasonable accommodation. As noted by the EEOC, the “purpose of the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation is to require employers to change the way things are customarily done to enable employees with disabilities to work.” An employer cannot assert that it does not provide leave or the leave provided has been exhausted as a defense to a leave request and/or the ultimate claim that the ADA has been violated.
- Anytime leave is requested as an accommodation, an employer should consider whether or not or under what circumstances it could be granted; such leave does not have to be paid leave. However, leave should only be refused where the employer has determined that providing additional leave will constitute an undue hardship to the employer.
- Because the employer should generally refuse leave only where it presents an undue hardship, policies that provide for a maximum amount of leave, after which an employee would be automatically terminated, do not satisfy an employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process and undue hardship analysis. As much as we as employers and attorneys would prefer it, the EEOC has refused to set a bright line rule defining how much leave is too much.
- Similarly, requiring that an employee be 100% healed before returning to work from a leave of absence could constitute an ADA violation because it fails to take into account whether the employer can perform the functions despite any ongoing limitation with or without a reasonable accommodation. Unless no accommodation exists or the employee poses a “direct threat” in the restricted capacity, the employer must consider reassignment and other alternatives to the application of the 100% healed policy that would allow the employee to return to work. Naturally, this will require the employer to consult with the employee prior to their return as a natural part of the ongoing interactive process mandated by the ADA, and employers can, within reason and considering the circumstances of the leave, engage with the employee during the course of the leave in order to plan for the return to work.
- In assessing the reasonableness of the need for leave and whether or not it presents an undue hardship, employers can consider leave already taken, the amount of leave being requested, the frequency of the leave if not continuous, the flexibility of the leave in terms of when it is taken if intermittent in nature, whether intermittent leave is predictable or unpredictable, the impact on coworkers and/or the duties can still be performed in an appropriate and timely manner, and the impact on the employer’s operations and ability to serve its customers. No one factor is controlling, and each of these factors is wholly unique to each individual case.
The takeaway here is that communication is key. This includes communication with employees requesting leave about the nature of and need for the leave as well as expectations regarding the return to work, and it also includes communication with managers and supervisors about the effect of the leave, and communication with decision-makers about policy modifications. Policies must also allow for communication, employers must ensure that the communication occurs in each case, and employers also have to consider each request individually in order to avoid ADA concerns.