By Meghan Droste, September 16, 2020
This month, I return to our ongoing review of important issues related to reasonable accommodation requests. Unfortunately, I have seen agencies too often make very avoidable mistakes when it comes to responding to requests for accommodations. Often times these mistakes seem to result from an instinct to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to handling requests. As the Commission has reminded agencies time and again, that strategy just does not work in the area of reasonable accommodations.
One way in which this can come up is in determining the essential functions of a position. I know it can be tempting to look at the position description (“PD”) and use that as the sole definition of the essential functions for the position at issue, but it’s just not that simple. The Commission’s decision last month in Cecille W. v. U.S. Postal Service, EEOC App. No. 0120181915 (Aug. 6, 2020) is an excellent example of why that approach does not work.
In Cecille W., the complainant worked as a rural mail carrier. The PD for that position included a requirement that employees be able to lift up to 70 pounds. When the complainant requested reasonable accommodations, the agency informed her that she was not a qualified individual with a disability because her lifting restrictions (no more than 20 pounds) made her unqualified for her position as a rural carrier. The agency also concluded that the complainant was unqualified for any other positions to which the agency could potentially reassign her, as they all included 70-pound lifting requirement.
After a hearing, the administrative judge found in the agency’s favor. The administrative judge agreed with the agency that the complainant was not qualified because of her lifting restrictions. The administrative judge also agreed with the agency’s argument that accommodating the complainant would be an undue hardship because it would require the agency to provide significant assistance to the complainant and reduce its production standards. Does this seem like an easy and obvious win for the agency?
The EEOC didn’t think so. The Commission reversed the finding in the agency’s favor because of one big issue — neither the agency nor the administrative judge looked beyond the PD when determining the essential functions of the complainant’s position. If they had, they would have seen that the complainant had been performing her rural carrier duties with a 20-pound lifting restriction for years. She found workarounds to avoid lifting heavy trays of mail and needed minimal assistance to successfully perform her job without any complaints from management.
They also would have seen that the post office had an informal policy that on the rare occasions they received a heavy package, the custodial staff would assist the carriers with delivering the package to customers.
As a result, there was no real need for the complainant to be able to lift anything beyond her 20-pound lifting restriction. The Commission also found that the agency was only speculating when it argued that accommodating the complainant would be an undue hardship, particularly because the record was clear that the complainant had not required significant assistance to perform her duties.
Agencies need to process requests for accommodation quickly. As I discussed in June and July, an unnecessary delay can result in a finding against the agency. But you should not try to meet your obligation to move quickly by just applying a one-size-fits-all approach. You must make sure you process every request with an individualized assessment of the employee’s needs and also of the specific position at issue. [email protected]