Hey Compliance Warriors!
The ADA requires that employers make exceptions to their policies, including leave policies, in order to provide a reasonable accommodation. Although employers are allowed to have leave policies that establish the maximum amount of leave an employer will provide or permit, they may have to grant leave beyond this amount as a reasonable accommodation to employees who require it because of a disability, unless the employer can show that doing so will cause an undue hardship.
Example 11: An employer covered under the FMLA grants employees a maximum of 12 weeks of leave per year. An employee uses the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave for her disability but still needs five additional weeks of leave. The employer must provide the additional leave as a reasonable accommodation unless the employer can show that doing so will cause an undue hardship. The Commission takes the position that compliance with the FMLA does not necessarily meet an employer’s obligation under the ADA, and the fact that any additional leave exceeds what is permitted under the FMLA, by itself, is not sufficient to show undue hardship. However, there may be legitimate reasons that establish undue hardship, such as the impact on an employer’s operations from the leave already taken and/or from granting additional leave. Also, the employer may consider whether other reasonable accommodations may enable the employee to return to work sooner than the employee anticipates, as long as those accommodations would be consistent with the employee’s medical needs.
Types of Maximum Leave Policies
Maximum leave policies (sometimes referred to as “no fault” leave policies) take many different forms. A common policy, especially for entities covered by the FMLA, is a flat limit of 12 weeks for both extended and intermittent leave. Other varieties exist though. Some maximum leave policies have caps much higher than 12 weeks. Others, particularly those not covered by the FMLA, set lower overall caps. Employers also frequently implement policies that limit unplanned absences. For example, a policy might permit employees to have no more than five unplanned absences during a 12-month period, after which they will be subject to progressive discipline or termination.
Employees with disabilities are not exempt from these policies as a general rule. However, such policies may have to be modified as a reasonable accommodation for absences related to a disability, unless the employer can show that doing so would cause undue hardship.
Example 12: An employer is not covered by the FMLA, and its leave policy specifies that an employee is entitled to only four days of unscheduled leave per year. An employee with a disability informs her employer that her disability may cause periodic unplanned absences and that those absences might exceed four days a year. The employee has requested a reasonable accommodation, and the employer should engage with the employee in an interactive process to determine if her disability requires intermittent absences, the likely frequency of the unplanned absences, and if granting an exception to the unplanned absence policy would cause undue hardship.
Communication Issues for Employers with Maximum Leave Policies
Many employers, especially larger ones and those with generous maximum leave policies, may rely on “form letters” to communicate with employees who are nearing the end of leave provided under an employer’s leave program. These letters frequently instruct an employee to return to work by a certain date or face termination or other discipline. Employers who use such form letters may wish to modify them to let employees know that if an employee needs additional unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the employee should ask for it as soon as possible so that the employer may consider whether it can grant an extension without causing undue hardship. If an employer relies on a third party provider to handle lengthy leave programs, including short- and long-term disability leave programs, it should ensure that any automatic form letters generated by these providers comply with the employer’s obligations under the ADA.
Employers who handle requests under their regular leave policy separately from requests for leave as a reasonable accommodation should ensure that those responsible communicate with one another to avoid mishandling a request for accommodation. For example, an employer may hire a contractor to handle its long-term disability program, but have its human resources department handle all requests for leave as a reasonable accommodation. The employer should ensure that the contractor is instructed to forward to the human resources department, in a timely manner, any requests for additional leave beyond the maximum period granted under the long-term disability program, and to refrain from terminating the employee until the human resources department has the opportunity to engage in an interactive process. The human resources department should contact the employee as soon as possible to explain that it will be handling the request for additional leave as a reasonable accommodation, and that all further communication from the employee on this issue should be directed to that department.
An employer and employee should continue to communicate about whether the employee is ready to return to work or whether additional leave is necessary. For example, the employee may contact a supervisor, human resources official, or anyone else designated by the employer to handle the leave to provide updates about the employee’s ability to return to work (with or without reasonable accommodation), or about any need for additional leave.
If an employee requests additional leave that will exceed an employer’s maximum leave policy (whether the leave is a block of time or intermittent), the employer may engage in an interactive process as described above, including obtaining medical documentation specifying the amount of the additional leave needed, the reasons for the additional leave, and why the initial estimate of a return date proved inaccurate. An employer may also request relevant information to assist in determining whether the requested extension will result in an undue hardship.