The COVID-19 Influence on Job Accommodations

Written by Nancy Gilpatrick MSEd, CRC, CDMS, LSW and PDA Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant

Working from home and changes to work routine have greatly impacted the American worker in the last year. Companies across the country found themselves sending their work forces home to work within a few days’ time and many companies were not prepared for this abrupt transition.

In mid-March of 2020, the workforce was abruptly changed and since then questions have surfaced around what the responsibility of the employer is to address ergonomic concerns for at-home workstations. Many workers went into the office, packed up their things, and went home to work not knowing how long they would be working from home or how it would work with their family life. Initially, many workers used their own office equipment but, over time, started asking employers for equipment and tools needed to perform their work ergonomically.

Job Accommodations at Home

The pandemic response, which resulted in employees working from home on a continuous basis, did not negate the employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process to assess and evaluate the need for job accommodations in the home work environment. Many of the accommodations offered by employers over the last year have been experimental, as workers and employers have adjusted to a new normal. Some companies are utilizing internal human resource personnel to identify tools, technology, and equipment needed. Other companies are using outside resources such as a vocational specialist to make those assessments.

There is going to be a long period of addressing the challenges of working from home and what that means for productivity. Employers must also consider the psychological impact to workers, their children, and their families caused by the pivot to working from home, and subsequently returning to the office. 

As part of the interactive process between the employer and their employees, employers have been pressed to assess the reasonableness of requested accommodations. An accommodation as recommended by medical documentation might require an evaluation of the employee’s disability in relationship to office equipment utilized to perform their essential functions. In many cases, the use of an ergonomic specialist might be used to assess the ergonomic needs of the worker in relationship to the accommodation requested. 

Employers have been forced to continuously reassess the needs of their workforce as they also predict and decide what they will do when the pandemic is over. Many states are starting to lift restrictions and employers are asking their workers to return to the office. Employers are wrestling with whether or not to continue to offer work from home opportunities and if the ability to work remotely has become a reasonable accommodation.

As the end of the pandemic nears, employers are wondering how and if they should mandate their workers to return to the office. Questions have arisen such as:

Hybrid workforces are proposed in which some workers remain remote, while others allow employees to choose what works for them.

Accommodation Resources for Employers

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is the leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance regarding workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. While this is a great resource for employers, it’s important to note that every accommodation request must be evaluated for the reasonableness of the accommodation, whether it occurs in the home or in an office space. An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability to allow them to perform an “essential job function” as long as it does not cause “significant hardship or expense” or “undue hardship” to the employer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance to employers to help understand how COVID-19 is impacted the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. The EEOC clarified that employers are not required to provide accommodations to employees who do not declare a disability.

This is a challenging time for both employers and workers as the country returns to some new form of normalcy. The set of circumstances that caused the work place to turn to working from home situations are changing and it will take creativity and flexibility on the part of all parties as new patterns of work are formed.