Can an Employer Take Away Reasonable Accommodation?

An employer taking away a reasonable accommodation from an employee in a wheelchair

Reasonable accommodation is a central concept in employment law. Employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, helping ensure there are equal opportunities in the workplace for everyone. However, in practice, there can be a fine line between what sort of accommodation an employer is and is not required to provide.

One question often arises for employees: “Once a reasonable accommodation is granted, can my employer take it away?” Identifying the answer to this question is often harder than it sounds. A general answer would be “no,” but it is important to understand that an employer’s ability to remove accommodations often depends on specific circumstances.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

First, it is important to understand what “reasonable accommodations” even means. A reasonable accommodation is a legal term that refers to modifications or adjustments to the job application process or the work environment. These accommodations are designed to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities can perform the essential functions of a job.

Employers are legally obligated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. This landmark federal legislation ensures that employees enjoy equal employment opportunities regardless of their disabilities. Common examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Modified training and job materials
  • Modified work schedules
  • Restructuring job duties
  • Reassignment to another position
  • Adjustable office equipment
  • Ensuring the physical workspace is accessible
  • Providing assistive technology
  • Providing medical leave

Some employers proactively work to ensure that physical workspaces, materials, and other aspects of the job are accessible to individuals with disabilities. For example, some employers might already have training materials that accommodate assistive devices like screen readers. They might also maintain copies of written, video, audio and/or braille materials. Proactive accommodations like these help ensure that the unique needs of all potential employees are considered and addressed upfront.

While it is increasingly common to see employers proactively enact policies designed to accommodate all types of employees, it is impossible — and often impractical — to anticipate the unique accommodations that might be needed for every employee, especially given the range of disabilities and health conditions protected under the ADA.

When an employer removes reasonable accommodations or makes modifications that make it harder for a disabled employee to do their job, it can be deeply frustrating. Without a solid understanding of employment law and the rights afforded by the ADA, it can be challenging to assess when an employer’s modifications are illegal.

Legal Protections for Employees

Employees have legal rights and protections regarding reasonable accommodations. These protections are designed to prevent discrimination in various forms, including the unwarranted withdrawal or modification of reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

Although the ADA is the primary body of laws designed to protect the rights of employees with disabilities, there are many other laws that provide protection. 

The Rehabilitation Act offers similar protections for federal employees and contractors. It also targets programs receiving federal financial assistance. One of the key distinctions between the two laws is that the ADA protects employees in the private sector while the Rehabilitation Act focuses on federal employment. Like the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act makes workplace discrimination illegal and requires federal employers to provide reasonable accommodations unless it would cause undue hardship. The Rehabilitation Act actually predates the ADA and serves as a model for the ADA’s development. The ADA was created to broaden the protections of employees across the country.

Finally, state and local laws frequently afford additional protections to employees. For example, employees in Florida are also protected under the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”). The FCRA ensures equal employment opportunities for several protected classes, including those with disabilities.  Counties throughout Florida may also have anti-discrimination laws written into their local ordinances.

When assessing a potential disability claim, it is important to understand which body of law protects the employee, as they all have different requirements and qualifications. For example, both the ADA and FCRA generally require that the employer has at least 15 employees. If this prerequisite is not met, your employer may not be covered under these laws. In other words, they may not need to offer reasonable accommodations.

Determining whether an employer’s decision to remove a reasonable accommodation is illegal or discriminatory can be difficult. It often takes the experience of a skilled employment lawyer to build a strong case on behalf of the employee who was negatively impacted by the changes. The concept of reasonable accommodations is often complicated and highly unique. The laws offer general statements often open to interpretation out of necessity, as it would be highly challenging to explicitly list every type of accommodation every employee might need. Disabilities are complex, and how they manifest can differ, even between individuals with the same condition. As a result, an employer and employee need to communicate clearly about the employee’s needs and how an employer can work to meet them. This is called the “interactive process.” Employers are required to engage in the interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations.

When an employer refuses to make reasonable accommodations or attempts to remove accommodations it previously agreed to, the employee should consider seeking the advice of an employment lawyer. It can be difficult to determine when an employer is violating discrimination laws without an experienced lawyer to assess the specific situation.

Circumstances When an Employer Can Withdraw Accommodations

An employer may be justified in changing or removing reasonable accommodations in specific situations. Identifying these circumstances requires an understanding of the legal concepts that reasonable accommodations are weighed against.

The two primary legal reasons under which an employer can justify removing previously granted reasonable accommodations are: 

The ADA specifies that accommodations should not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. This analysis is determined case-by-case and must be based on an individualized assessment of the employer’s current circumstances. Factors to consider include, but are not limited to, the cost of the accommodation needed, the employer’s financial resources, and the number of employees. If providing the accommodations would result in significant difficulty or high costs for the employer, they may be legally justified in modifying or withdrawing the accommodation.

On the other hand, if an accommodation has already been granted, it can be challenging for an employer to prove that the removal was due to undue hardship. It is more common for an employer to use this excuse to deny granting an accommodation from the start. When an employer attempts to justify the removal of an accommodation on the grounds of undue hardship, they typically need to prove that some sort of substantial change has occurred. Your employer should be able to demonstrate how circumstances have changed so that an accommodation previously deemed reasonable is now the source of a significant enough expense or inconvenience to merit the withdrawal or modification.

The other most common reason for withdrawing accommodations is if an employee’s job responsibilities have changed. It is typically easier for an employer to take this route when attempting to justify the removal of a previously granted accommodation. When work responsibilities change, an employer should be willing to listen to the employee and make new accommodations that are appropriate, given the employee’s new responsibilities. Employees should be aware of the risk of an employer attempting to use this valid legal reason as grounds for no longer offering accommodations. 

Regardless of the reason for withdrawing accommodations, the employer needs to engage in the “interactive process” to determine whether there are any other reasonable accommodations that can assist the employee without causing undue hardship to the employer.

Circumstances When Employers Cannot Withdraw Accommodations

There are at least two specific periods during which employers do not have the right to withdraw reasonable accommodations. These are during critical periods and worsening health conditions.

Critical work periods are temporary times, such as a busy season or when employees are working on a project under a tight deadline. This means that even when employees are working under unusual conditions, an employer is not justified in temporarily taking away reasonable accommodations.

The second situation — worsening conditions — involves an employee with a disability who may have ongoing or worsening conditions. In this case, the employee may need ongoing or modified accommodations that accurately reflect their changing needs.

An employer cannot set time limits on an accommodation that is not aligned with the employee’s needs. Similarly, an employer must work with an employee to extend accommodations if the employee’s condition or symptoms worsen over time.

Potential Consequences for Employers

A judge banging a gavel to sentence an employer that illegally withdrew accommodations

Anti-discrimination laws protect the rights of employees. When an employer violates the rights of an employee with a disability, they can be held accountable for their actions in court. If an employer is found guilty of violating anti-discrimination laws, they can face fines, penalties, and legal costs. Employees may be able to recover compensation such as lost wages, emotional distress, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the employer and discourage other employers from committing similar violations of the law.

Not only can an employee file a lawsuit against their employer, but government agencies can also file lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved employees. For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency that investigates disability claims (among other types of claims), will sometimes join lawsuits when it feels the case will send a strong message to employers across the country.

Breaking anti-discrimination laws can also do significant damage to a company’s reputation. If employee morale is impacted, it can lead to not only a less inclusive, but a a less productive work environment.

When to Talk to an Attorney

Any time you suspect your rights are being violated, it is worth consulting an employment lawyer. When reasonable accommodations are removed or modified, and you are unsatisfied with the changes, a lawyer can help you understand your legal options.

Employers often exploit their employees’ lack of knowledge regarding employees’ rights and the employers’ obligations. In other cases, an employer might violate ADA laws without realizing it, leading you to question, “Can an employer take away reasonable accommodations?”

Regardless of the reasons for the changes to workplace accommodations, it often falls upon the employee to recognize something is wrong and take action. Fortunately, once you have an experienced employment lawyer on your side, you can trust that they will put their legal knowledge to work fighting for your rights. 

If you work in Florida and think your employer has illegally removed or modified your reasonable accommodations, Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A. can help. Contact our employment law firm to schedule a consultation with an experienced employment disability discrimination attorney today.

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