By Dan Gephart, August 29, 2023

An agency should not make a decision on a reasonable accommodation request until it determines whether the employee is “qualified,” and that step can’t be completed until the agency has identified the essential functions of the job at issue.

In a best-case scenario, questions were asked, facts were considered, and determinations were made about the essential functions back when the agency first started recruiting for the position. Surprisingly, this does not always happen. And, sometimes, the discussion of essential

functions comes up for the first time during the interactive process following a reasonable accommodation request.

If that’s the case at your agency, you’ll be doing a lot of  catch-up work each time a request for reasonable accommodation comes in. And believe me, they are coming in and will continue to do so, particularly, it seems, as requests for telework.

Even if the essential functions were determined when the position was created, jobs change over time. And it’s important that you revisit the issue to determine if functions are still essential. In doing so, consider the following:

1- Whether a job function is essential is a factual determination unique to each position. It’s not just based on the subjective opinion of a supervisor.

2 – There are numerous factors to consider when determining whether a job task is an essential function. Ask yourself these questions – and then answer them honestly:

•      Does the position exist to perform that function?

•      Are there other employees who can perform the function?

•      What degree of expertise or skill is required to perform the function?

•      How much time does the employee spend performing the function?

•      What happens if the function is not performed?

3 – An essential function is a job task or outcome – not how the job is performed. For example: The essential function of a letter carrier is “casing and delivering mail.” It sure helps to be able to lift 70 pounds, but it’s possible to perform the essential function in other ways. Small v. Postmaster General, EEOC Appeal No. 0720100031 (2012).

There are a lot more steps to this process, especially when the employee is requesting telework as a reasonable accommodation. For more on this topic, join us on Sept. 7 for Reasonable Accommodation: Meeting Post-pandemic Challenges in Your Agency. [email protected]

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