The “Interactive Process” defined:
When it comes to accommodating and creating safe environments for disabled workers, there must be a collaborative dialogue between an employer and an employee with a disability or medical condition to identify and implement reasonable accommodations that enable the employee to perform their essential job functions.
- “Reasonable accommodation” refers to the process by which employers make modifications or adjustments to the workplace, job duties, or policies to enable employees with disabilities to perform their essential job functions and enjoy equal employment opportunities.
- “Essential job functions” refers to core duties and responsibilities that are fundamental to a particular position and are critical for the employee to perform the job effectively and meet the organization’s operational needs.
The interactive process typically begins when an employee with a disability or medical condition requests accommodation for the disability. However, it’s important to note that the duty to initiate the process can also rest with the employer if they are aware of the need for reasonable accommodation, even if the employee has not made a formal request.
Role of the Employer in the Interactive Process:
- To initiate the process if they are aware of the need for accommodation, even if the employee has not made a formal request.
- To request information from the employee, if necessary, to better understand the nature of the disability and the accommodation needs.
- To work collaboratively with the employee to identify and implement effective accommodations.
- To maintain confidentiality regarding the employee’s medical information.
Role of the Employee in the Interactive Process:
- To make a formal request for accommodation when necessary.
- To provide relevant medical information and documentation to support the accommodation request.
- To engage in an open and constructive dialogue with the employer regarding their needs and potential accommodations.
- To participate in problem-solving efforts to find suitable accommodation solutions.
The interactive process is not just a best practice; it is a legal requirement under FEHA. Employers who fail to engage in this process or who do so in bad faith may be liable for disability discrimination.
Matt’s Further Legal Perspective:
Employers Often Fall Short in Reasonable Accommodation Efforts
Employers in California often fall short of meeting the minimum threshold of compliance when it comes to providing reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
Under California law, employers are obligated to engage in a good-faith interactive process with disabled employees to determine and implement reasonable accommodations. However, many employers either lack a comprehensive understanding of their legal obligations or fail to adequately train their personnel on disability accommodation procedures. This knowledge gap can lead to inadvertent disability discrimination.
Common issues include failing to engage in an interactive process, denying requested accommodations without proper evaluation, or simply being unaware of the full range of accommodations available to meet an employee’s needs. Employers may also underestimate the significance of reasonable accommodation, believing them to be overly burdensome or costly.
What Does the Interactive Process Look Like in Practice?
The process typically begins when an employee with a disability or medical condition requests reasonable accommodation. However, it’s crucial to note that the duty to initiate the process can also rest with the employer if they are aware of the need for reasonable accommodation, even if the employee has not made a formal request.
The interactive process is marked by a cooperative exchange of information and ideas between the employer and the employee. It is not required to be a formal, face-to-face meeting and may take various forms, including phone calls, emails, or written correspondence. What matters most is the meaningful engagement in problem-solving.
Assessment and Exploration:
Both parties assess the nature of the disability, its impact on the employee’s job performance, and potential accommodations. This may involve obtaining medical documentation, seeking input from experts, or considering various accommodation options.
The process encourages creativity and flexibility in finding solutions. Employers should explore different accommodation possibilities, and employees should be open to discussing what would best meet their needs.
FEHA emphasizes the importance of timeliness. Employers should respond to accommodation requests and engage in the interactive process promptly, without undue delay.
No Interactive Process Required in Obvious Cases:
It’s important to note that the interactive process may not be required in situations where it is obvious that no reasonable accommodation exists. For example, if a bus driver becomes blind and driving is an essential function of their job, it may be evident that no accommodation can enable them to perform their duties safely. In such cases, the employer is not obligated to engage in the interactive process.