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Employers: Keep In Mind That "Light-Duty" Accommodations Need To Be Handled Carefully

If you're an employer, you need to be careful how you go about offering light duty to any of your employees -- otherwise, you could end up on the wrong end of a verdict in civil court if the employee demands a permanent light-duty position and accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). 

This is what you should consider:

Offering Accommodations Can Benefit You In Court

If you routinely offer "light duty" work to injured employers, you probably genuinely have your employees' best interests -- and the needs of your business -- at heart. After all, it's worth offering a valuable employee a light-duty option when he or she is recovering from surgery if that employee has special knowledge or skills that aren't easily assumed by someone else. Plus, the light-duty position allows the employee to return to work earlier, saving his or her sick leave or keeping him or her from having to go through any savings once any sick leave is exhausted.

That can also really benefit you in court -- the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is often the focus of court cases brought by employees who are dissatisfied with their long-term accommodation options. However, a company that can show that it routinely makes accommodations and good-faith efforts to work with their disabled or injured employees tends to have more success in court if they have to defend a situation where they've been forced to deny an accommodation request.

Be Cautious About "Light-Duty" Assignments

On the other hand, being overly broad about the type of accommodations you're willing to offer can actually misfire and come back to haunt you in court. This is where, as an employer and a human being, you have to balance out the needs of your injured or disabled employee with the needs of your company.

In other words, not every disability can be accommodated in every job -- and a willingness to temporarily accommodate a valuable employee with a "light-duty" assignment doesn't necessarily obligate you to continue the accommodations permanently. 

A lot of employers don't understand these last two points -- which is to their detriment. It can also be a big problem for the employer in court if the employee guidebook doesn't carefully spell out the light-duty policies or an employer sometimes makes exceptions. For example:

  • An employer can't pick and choose when to create a "light-duty" position -- if you create new positions for some employees in order to meet the long-term demands of their disabilities, you may be obligated to do so for all your employees who develop limiting disabilities.
  • A temporary light-duty position needs to be clarified as such, in writing, before the employee starts. That way, if it becomes clear the employee's condition isn't going to improve, he or she has no expectation that employment will continue.
  • If you have an open position that the disabled employee can perform either with or without a reasonable accommodation, you need to offer the position to the employee first, before seeking to fill it other ways. That will protect you in court later if the employee sues.

The ADA doesn't require you to create light-duty positions out of thin air to accommodate an employee with a disability. However, if you've done it before, that could be a big legal problem for you in court. Having a written understanding that light-duty accommodations are temporary and have an expiration date can give you a solid defense in civil court if necessary.

Contact a law office like Robert J. Ameen, Attorney at Law for more information and assistance.