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Accommodating Disabled Employees: According to California Employment Law

Find A Labor Lawyer in California for Disability Accommodation Claims

Nobody asks to be born with a disability. However, for many people, disabilities are an unavoidable part of life. Disabilities may also have a negative impact on a person's ability to work. It's critical to understand which acts constitute unconstitutional disability discrimination in these situations. With the help of a Labor Lawyer, you might be able to get damages you are entitled to.

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Discrimination against people with disabilities is when they are treated unfairly because of their physical or mental limitations. It is definitely illegal for employers with five or more employees to discriminate on the basis of an employee's physical impairment, mental disability, medical condition, or genetic condition under California law.

The employee must be (and should be) able to perform the job's basic functions in order to be eligible for insurance. If an employee should require a reasonable accommodation to perform their job, the employer is required by law to offer one because doing so would be extremely difficult and costly.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a federal law that aims to provide "simple, solid, consistent, and enforceable requirements addressing discrimination against persons with disabilities."

Employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against disabled employees who can perform the basic functions of their employment, even though they require fair accommodations.

  • The ADA also establishes guidelines for determining whether an employee is injured and what types of accommodations are appropriate.

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission partially applies the ADA in the United States (known as the EEOC). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a government agency in charge of enforcing a number of federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) promulgates ADA-related rules and advises on employee grievances. In certain cases, the EEOC will file a civil lawsuit on behalf of a disabled person against an employer. Your Employment Law Attorney will know the more in-depth details.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)

The State of California's version of the ADA is the Equal Employment and Housing Act of 1959 (known as FEHA Pronunciation of "FEHA"). Its aim is to provide workers with remedies and to eradicate discriminatory practices.

  • Employers with five or more workers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with physical or mental disabilities, medical conditions, or genetic details under the FEHA.

  • The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is in charge of enforcing the FEHA. By having a process for filing grievances, the DFEH serves as a first step for many aggrieved workers.

The DFEH, like its federal counterpart, has enacted several regulations. They aim to "ensure discrimination-free access to job opportunities despite any individual's real or perceived impairment or medical condition," among other things. ⁠

Employers and workers may use the DFEH's regulations to define the provisions of the FEHA.

The Main Differences Between the ADA and the FEHA

The FEHA was enacted before the ADA, but the California legislature greatly amended it in 1992. Those changes were modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act because the two acts are identical. The key difference is that disabled workers are generally given more protection under the FEHA.

The ADA does not exclude states or local governments from enacting legislation that offers equivalent or greater protections to employees. This ensures that employers in California are expected to follow regulations that set the highest expectations.

Here are some key distinctions between the FEHA and the ADA:

The FEHA's definition of "disability" is more expansive than the ADA's. In cases where the FEHA's concept of "disability" is not broader than the ADA's, the FEHA incorporates the definition that would provide the employee with the broadest protections.

As a result, the FEHA's coverage is always at least equal to the ADA's. The ADA restricts the amount of damages workers can recover in a civil case, while the FEHA has no such restrictions.

  • Employers with more than 15 employed workers are covered by the ADA, while the FEHA covers employers with five or more employees.

  • Under the FEHA, an employer's duty to provide fair accommodations for a disabled person is greater than under the ADA.

  • Employees who want to make a lawsuit against their employer should be aware of these distinctions. Since the FEHA gives workers more rights than the ADA, it is always preferable for employees to seek relief under the FEHA rather than the ADA.

Which Employers Could Be Held Liable?

An employer can be held responsible for discrimination or discriminatory behavior under California law if they fall into one of the following categories:

  • Employers with a staff of five or more

  • Despite the fact that California law aims to abolish disability discrimination in the workplace, it exempts very small businesses.

  • ⁠Individuals who work in companies with less than five employees will have no recourse if they are subjected to discrimination practices. ⁠ As a result, the employer must be a "individual regularly employing five or more people" to be held legally liable for discriminatory practices. ⁠

  • Agents

  • An individual who works on behalf of an employer is known as an agent. For this form of relationship to occur, the employer must agree to have the agent work on its behalf.

  • An employer's agent is handled the same as the real employer under California and federal law. This ensures that an employee will sue both the employer and the employer's agent for discriminatory actions committed by the agent.

  • Supervisory employees, for example, are not legally "agents" for these purposes.

  • Supervisors

  • Employers are generally liable for the discriminatory conduct of their bosses, administrators, or agents. Similarly, when employers threaten disabled workers, the employer can be held liable.

  • On the other hand, the inappropriate conduct must have occurred while the violating boss, manager, or agent was employed.

  • Importantly, since they are the actual boss, individual superiors or managers are not individually responsible for acts of discrimination or retaliation. They may, however, be held directly responsible for harassment-related acts.

  • Colleagues

  • Coworkers, in general, do not have the authority to take disciplinary action against employees. They'd be called managers if they weren't. As a result, allegations of discrimination against colleagues are typically minimal.

  • A coworker who harasses a disabled employee may be held personally accountable. In the same way, an employer can be held liable if:

  • The employer or any subordinates were aware (or should have been aware) of the bullying behavior of a coworker, and the employer failed to take prompt and effective action to address the harassment.

  • This is basically a liability principle based on "negligence." An employer will be held accountable if it negligently allows a disabled person to be insulted by coworkers.

Which Employees Are Protected?

  • Those who work for you

  • Employers who discriminate against "any person" in the workplace are breaking the law in California. This applies to all existing staff and career applicants.

  • Any person who is under the supervision and control of an employer is considered an employee for these purposes. To be eligible, the employee must have a compensated employment contract with the company. This may be in the form of an implicit contract, an apprenticeship, or some other type of work arrangement.

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  • Those looking for work

  • California's anti-discrimination laws also cover employees and job applicants. As a result, work candidates frequently have the right to be free of discrimination based on their disability.

  • It is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire or train a worker because of their disability unless the same form of discrimination is allowed against employees.

  • Contractors who work for themselves

  • Independent contractors do not have the same rights as employers when it comes to disability discrimination. They do, however, have the right to be free of discrimination by their employer because of their disability.

  • An independent contractor is described as anyone who provides services for a set price and a set outcome. Independent contractors usually work without oversight and have complete control of how they achieve their goals.

  • Exceptions to the rule

  • Employees who are part of the employer's immediate family are not covered. Volunteers and individuals who are not paying in any other way should not count as workers.

  • A few other types of workers are not covered, such as some nonprofit employees, but these are rare exceptions.

When is an Impairment Considered a Qualified "Disability"?

Discrimination against workers because of their disabilities is illegal in California. However, not all physical or psychological issues are considered legal "disabilities." An employee must suffer from one of the following conditions in order to be protected by California law:

  • A medical disorder

  • A physical impairment

  • A mental disability

Employees are shielded from prejudice based on their genetic information in a similar way. However, the form of discrimination is more likely to fall into one of the categories mentioned above.


In California, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a pregnant employee. Whether or not the employee is impaired as a result of the pregnancy, pregnancy discrimination by an eligible employer is often prohibited.

In some cases, pregnant women may be protected from discrimination based on both their pregnancy and a pregnancy-related disability. If a pregnant woman is impaired as a result of her pregnancy, she is entitled to a suitable accommodation unless it would place an unreasonable burden on the employer.

  • Since an employer might be forced to offer extended family leave, reasonable allowances are necessary for female workers. A suitable accommodation may also be required to change the employee's working conditions and enable him or her to work in comfort.

  • Employees must be legally "disabled" by their pregnancy in order to be eligible for these forms of accommodations. In other words, the employee themselves will have to prove that their pregnancy has prevented them from engaging in a major life operation.


Obesity is seldom considered a physical impairment. However, if it is exacerbated by anything physical and involuntary, it may become a physical disability.

When an employee's weight problem is the product of a physiological illness or disease affecting a body system, they are protected from disability discrimination. Furthermore, the employee's weight would restrict his or her ability to engage in major life activities.

Disabilities That Aren't Protected

If an employee's illness is mild and temporary, it is not considered an eligible disability. On a case-by-case basis, mild conditions are decided. They contain conditions with short-term or no long-term consequences. Colds, measles, minor cuts or abrasions, sprains, muscle aches, soreness, bruises, non-migraine headaches, and minor and non-chronic gastrointestinal disorders are only a few examples.

Additionally, despite the fact that all of these behaviors are arguably psychiatric illnesses, California law expressly forbids them: compulsive gambling, Kleptomania, Pyromania, Substance abuse disorders arising from current illegal drug use, and Certain sexual conduct disorders such as pedophilia, exhibitionism, and voyeurism.

Transgender people, for example, do not have a sexual behavior disorder. The freedom to pose or dress in a manner that is compatible with the employee's gender identity or gender expression is protected by California law.

If you're still unsure whether or not your illness counts as a disability, you can speak with an Employment Law Attorney.

Misjudging Someone's Disability

Employees in California are, by law, protected from discrimination based on a perceived disability under California law. This ensures that even if an employee does not have a disability, they are shielded from discrimination on the basis of their disability.

It is illegal for an employer to believe (whether incorrectly or not) that an employee has or may have a disability.

The Duty of the Worker to Inform

An employee must prove that he or she was subjected to adverse workplace action because of his or her disability to make a case of illegal disability discrimination.

In the vast majority of cases, this ensures that the employer must be aware of the employee's disability. When an employer discovers that an employee has a disability, they must:

  • When the employee informs the employer of his or her condition, or when the employer learns about the condition from another source, such as a third party or by observation.

  • The employer does not need to be aware of the condition's legal meaning, but it must be aware of the facts underlying its nature and its effect on the employee's job.

  • If the impairment and resulting disabilities are apparent, the employee should ensure that the employer is "aware" of the disability and the possible need for accommodation.

  • The same is true if the employee wants to participate in an interactive process to assess an acceptable accommodation: unless the employee's condition and subsequent limitations are apparent, the employee must initiate the process.

  • The most straightforward approach is for the employee to notify the boss in a simple and direct manner. The employee's claims must be clear enough for the employer to consider the details relevant to the employee's work-related needs in order to do so.

  • In certain cases, the employee will be forced to obtain medical evidence confirming the disability's presence and the need for adequate accommodations.

  • If the condition lasts more than a year, the employee will be required to request medical documentation each year demonstrating the need for continued fair accommodations.

The Responsibility to Participate in an Interactive Process

To decide if appropriate accommodations are available, an employer must participate in an engaging process with employees. This is usually an informal procedure in which the employee or the employee's Labor Lawyer tries to find a suitable accommodation that will enable the employee to do the job effectively.

An employer that refuses to participate in this procedure is breaking the law. Participation by the employer must be prompt and in good faith. If the procedure fails, the party who refused to engage in good faith bears responsibility.

In certain cases, the employer can request medical records in order to validate the employee's disability. If this occurs, the employer owes it to the employee to keep the details private. Certain supervisors, administrators, government officials, and safety staff are exempt from this obligation.

A claim for failure to participate in an engaging procedure against an employer is a separate civil cause of action from a failure to accommodate.

⁠In other words, an aggrieved employee will sue for monetary damages solely because the employer refused to engage in an interactive procedure.

An employee on rehab for alcohol or drugs

  • Employers with more than 24 staff must treat drug users and alcoholics in a fair manner.

  • The employee must voluntarily join and engage in an alcohol or drug recovery program to be qualified.

  • If the employee's absence will cause the employer undue inconvenience, the employer is not required to allow it.

  • If the employee has accumulated sick leave and uses it, for this reason, this time of leave is usually unpaid.

  • If individual wishes to participate in an alcohol or drug recovery program, the employer must make every effort to keep the information private.

Reasonable Accommodations for Disabled Employees

Unless doing so will cause the employer undue inconvenience, most companies in California are required to offer adequate accommodations for their workers with identified disabilities.

A reasonable accommodation allows disabled employees to fulfill the basic functions of the job. The following are some examples of popular accommodations:

  • Rearranging an employee's workspace so that it is open to people with disabilities.

  • Allowing the employee to take time off to see a doctor. Allowing a worker to work from home.

  • Changing the timeframe in which the employee's job duties must be done.

  • Allowing an employee to carry a service animal to work with them.

Of course, an employee may be entitled to a variety of other forms of accommodations. The circumstances of the employee will determine the most suitable form of accommodation.

Notably, the statute protects all staff and work applicants. It also makes it illegal for employers in California to discriminate against workers or candidates because of a disability or medical condition.

The Duty of the Employer to Provide Accommodation

Employers with five or more workers are subject to California law's fair accommodation standards.

According to the general law, employers who are already aware of an employee's disability have an obligation to make fair allowances for the disability. Employers must, in other words, make fair attempts to assess the best accommodation and integrate a disabled employee.

According to the statute, employers must also consult with disabled workers and participate in an open process with them about potentially fair accommodations.

This obligation can occur even though the employee has not requested accommodations—for example if the employer learns of the need for accommodations from another source or by observation. As a result, these laws impose a significant burden on employers.

Employers must, in general, accommodate their employees' disabilities if:

  • The employer is aware of the handicap.

  • The lodging is cost-effective.

  • The employee would be able to fulfill their vital job functions as a result of the accommodation.

What steps must be taken if the employer is aware of the disability?

An employer can learn about an employee's impairment in a variety of ways. The employee can tell the employer about his or her health condition if it is obvious. Once a legally protected disability has been identified, an employer is required to make a suitable accommodation unless doing so will cause unnecessary hardship.

When an employer becomes aware of a disability, they must engage in an "interactive phase" with the employee to decide the best accommodation. The interactive procedure mandated by California law is an informal conversation with the employee (or their representative) in which the employer tries to find a fair accommodation that will enable the employee to do their job effectively.

Employers are required to make fair efforts to assess the best accommodation by communicating with employees under the interactive framework. Employers must also take their preferences into account.

When a disabled employee requests it, the employer must comply with the request fairly and timely. The first step in the above-mentioned interactive method is to determine the position's basic functions. You might want to ask your Employment Law Attorney if there are things that still confuse you.

What are the most important work functions?

With the accommodations, employees must be able to execute their basic job functions. If an employee with a disability is still unable to perform the job's essential functions after being given adequate accommodations, an employer can discriminate against them or fire them.

To decide if a job role is necessary, a court will consider many factors, including:

  • Whether the aim of the role is to carry out that function.

  • If the employer only has a small number of workers to whom the work can be delegated.

  • Whether or not the role is extremely specialized.

An employee or employer may use proof to demonstrate whether a work role is critical. Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:

  • A published job description that is accurate and up to date

  • The sum of time spent performing the role on the job

  • The legal ramifications of failing to complete the task

  • Previous employees' work experience in the position

  • Employees in related positions' current work experience

  • Prior performance evaluations made mention of the value of the job function's performance

When to make accommodation?

If the employer may show that providing the accommodation will cause an unnecessary burden to the company, accommodation is fair when changes are made so that workers with disabilities can perform the basic functions of their work.

If the accommodation were inconvenient or expensive for the employer, it would be considered needless hardship. To decide if an unreasonable hardship occurs, courts will consider the following factors:

  • The type and cost of the accommodations, as well as the availability of tax credits, deductions, and outside funding.

  • The facility's total financial capital, as well as the effect on other employees' ability to perform their duties and the facility's ability to conduct business.

  • The number, form, and location of the facility providing the accommodation, as well as the overall size of the company in terms of the number of employees.

  • The facility's form of activities, including its workforce's composition, structure, and functions, and the facility's regional separation, administrative, or fiscal relationship.

  • An employer may legally refuse to accommodate a request for fair accommodation from an employee if it would cause an unreasonable burden to the employer's business operations.

The Legal Definition of "Disability" in California

Employers are not obligated to make accommodations for all medical conditions. The disorder must qualify as a disability in order to be covered by California's fair accommodation laws. Thankfully, the concept of "disability" encompasses a wide variety of conditions.

  • If an illness limits a significant life operation, it is considered an impairment. A disease restricts a significant life operation if it makes it impossible to complete it.

  • The word "significant life operation" would be interpreted narrowly by the courts.

  • ⁠Social events, basic life functions (walking, eating, sleeping, etc. ), working, physical activities, and mental activities are all examples of major life activities.

Physical disorders and mental disabilities are the two major types of disabilities that need accommodations.

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Physical Disability

The most common form of disability is probably physical disabilities. When an employee has a physical impairment, he or she must:

  • They suffer from any bodily ailment, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that affects one or more of the body's major systems. They have a medical condition that necessitates special education or other services.

  • They have a disease, illness, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, anatomical loss, or health deficiency on their record or in their past.

  • Their boss claims the employee has or has had a physical impairment or medical problem.

An employer cannot normally take into account any medication or assistive device—such as wheelchairs or hearing aids—that an employee can use to manage the impairment when deciding whether or not they have a physical disability. However, if these devices restrict a major life operation, they should be considered.

Mental or Psychiatric Illnesses

This include, but are not limited to:

  • Intellectual handicaps

  • Illnesses of the mind or emotions

  • Specific learning difficulties that prevent you from participating in a big life activity

  • Depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety are examples of mental or psychological disorders under this description

What's Not Covered

It's worth noting that physical and mental disorders don't include:

  • Disorders of sexual behavior

  • Gambling addiction

  • Kleptomania

  • Pyromania

  • Usage of psychoactive substances

Furthermore, state employees in California who have marijuana prescriptions or recommendations do not have legal immunity for marijuana use.

Reasonable Accommodations Examples

The reasonableness of an accommodation is determined on a case-by-case basis, with the needs of the specific position in mind. The following are some examples of possible accommodations:

  • allowing an employee to leave work to attend a doctor's or therapist's appointment

  • Allowing an employee to work a flexible schedule so that they can work more hours on good days and fewer hours on bad days

  • reorganizing the job description to exclude non-essential tasks

  • Providing a worksite that is wheelchair accessible, a sign language translator, or braille materials

  • Purchasing or changing equipment to meet an employee's medical condition; making facilities easily available and usable by disabled people (for example, by having accessible break rooms, showers, training rooms, or reserved parking spaces)

  • Reassignment to a spot that is no longer available

  • allowing job candidates or workers to carry service animals to work

  • Exams, training materials, and policies are being adjusted or modified (for example, coworker attitudes are being educated and reshaped)

Making a Request for Reasonable Accommodation

  • Informs the employer of the employee's disability.

  • Describes how their condition affects their ability to perform their job duties.

  • Explains which accommodations are needed to perform the critical functions of the job.

While the request may be made verbally, it is almost always preferable to put it in writing and keep a copy of the notice as proof.

What kinds of documents would an employer demand?

The need for accommodation is apparent if an employee uses a wheelchair. However, if the condition is not immediately apparent, the employer has the right to request reasonable medical reports from the employee.

The employee must be able to include a list of restrictions that must be met in order for the employer to accommodate him or her. However, the employer is not entitled to obtain the employee's entire medical record based on this request for evidence.

Before making a request, there are a few things to think about.

Employees should first speak with their doctor about their condition and learn more about their medical limitations and what they mean in the workplace. While it is common for employees and employers to communicate directly with one another, such exceptional circumstances may warrant the employer needing communication through a third party. Employee handbooks are available from some employers. Employees should study it and obey any recommendations it contains to request a suitable accommodation if one exists.

The employer is not required to offer the exact accommodation requested but must engage in substantive conversations with the employee about what would work and what is fair. If a less costly option is acceptable and meets the employee's needs, the employer can choose it. Employees can work tirelessly and honestly to find a suitable accommodation that helps them to fulfill all of their job's important functions.

Employers are prohibited from disclosing the disability

The employee has a right to privacy even though they are expected to have evidence of their disability.

Only managers or superiors who need to know about the employee's illness to satisfy the employee's job restrictions, or first aid and safety workers, may know about the employee's disability if the employee wishes to keep their condition confidential.

Any such use of the employee's medical records is against the law. Medical details and documents collected as part of the collaborative process must be kept separate and confidential from the employee's personnel history.

It is also illegal for the employer or someone else to threaten an employee because of his or her medical condition, physical impairment, or mental disability. If an employer fails to take appropriate steps to deter abuse, he or she can be held liable for financial damages.

Retaliation is Illegal

Employees also fear the repercussions of disclosing a disability and requesting fair accommodations. It's important to note, however, that persons who seek accommodations for their disability are covered by both California and federal employment laws.

The use of retaliation is strictly forbidden. An employer can not retaliate or discriminate against an employee who requests an accommodation, even if the accommodation is eventually refused. Employers who wrongfully terminate or treat their workers unfairly can be held responsible for any financial or emotional damage they cause.

Wrongful termination, decreasing an employee's working hours, unjustified negative performance ratings, or any other effort to compel a workplace resignation are all forms of unfair retaliation and discrimination.

Violations and What to Do With Them

If an employee (or a work applicant) claims they have been discriminated against because of their disability, they have many options:

  • Consider speaking with an Employment Law Attorney about the case to decide the correct course of action.

  • Attempt an informal resolution with your immediate boss or someone higher up the chain of command.

  • Contact the human resources manager or the individual in charge of accommodation problems at your workplace.

  • File a formal complaint with an administrative body against the employer—or, if that doesn't succeed, file a case in court.

It is important for an employee or job candidate to remember that there are strict deadlines for filing a complaint. It must be filed within one year of the date of harm in most cases.

The best way to settle a failure-to-accommodate conflict would, of course, be determined by the employee's individual circumstances. Before determining how to proceed, it's normally a good idea to seek legal advice.

Find An Disability Discrimination Lawyer in California

Is your employer failing to give you accommodations? You might have a case under California Employment Law. 1000Attorneys.com can refer you to a fitting Employment Law Attorney to help you through the process. Contact us through 24/7 Live Chat (or complete our case submission form) for a free initial consultation.

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