Back to the Mar-Apr 2024 issue

Considerations for ADA Accommodations and Compliance

By Jana O’Leary Sullivan

Nearly 35 years after it passed, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) remains one of the most important and robust employment laws. It is the common thread in an area of law that addresses employee and applicant medical issues, which often interweaves other laws, including the Workers’ Compensation Act, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and many more.

ADA-related issues are among the most common matters an employer will handle since nearly every worker will experience a medical issue at some point during their career. It also comes into play with national health crises. While the world will hopefully never again experience a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19, COVID is still in an endemic phase and other epidemics occur periodically.

Reasonable accommodations

In addition to prohibiting discrimination and retaliation like other employment laws, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities so they can perform the core functions of their job.

A reasonable accommodation is a modification to the job or workplace that allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the job and does not cause an “undue hardship” to the employer. Common reasonable accommodations include medical leaves, schedule modifications, specialized equipment or technology, alternative communication methods, reassignment to a vacant position, and modification of policies. Some accommodation requests are automatically unreasonable, including requests to remove essential functions, change supervisors, or provide a stress-free workplace.

The ADA and MHRA also require employers to consider and discuss potential accommodations with employees in an “interactive process.” While the mantra for anything employment related is to communicate and document, that is especially true in situations involving medical issues. Notably, a new amendment to the Minnesota Human Rights Act strengthens this requirement.

In determining what is reasonable, employers should conduct an individualized assessment that focuses on the nature of an employee’s job and the work restrictions, relying on medical records/exams and other objective information.

ADA compliance considerations

Given that ADA issues are among the most common matters an employer will handle, here are some key considerations to help ensure your city achieves and maintains ADA compliance.

Don’t ask applicants about medical issues — even if they are obvious or known. While employers can ask applicants if they can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation, they generally should not delve any deeper before making a conditional job offer, even if a medical condition or pregnancy is obvious or known. Importantly, there is no medical condition that automatically disqualifies a candidate from a job, even for a public safety or other safety-sensitive position. Indirect questions can get employers in trouble — such as asking a candidate about the reasons for separating from the military.

Scrutinize job requirements. Employers should clearly articulate job requirements in job descriptions, job postings, and other communications. Employers should regularly scrutinize to ask: Does the job truly require this? How did we decide on this requirement and is it supported by objective evidence? That is especially true for vision, hearing, lifting, and other similar requirements that can have the effect of unnecessarily disqualifying applicants with disabilities.

Consider medical leave as an accommodation. Employers must often consider medical leave as a potential accommodation. The ADA is broader than the FMLA and other laws — an employer may have to provide leave in excess of 12 weeks or where FMLA does not apply. This is a focus area of the courts and agencies. Importantly, policies that have a maximum amount of leave allowed — even if they are generous — run afoul of the ADA.

Consider remote/hybrid work. The pandemic was a game changer when it comes to remote and hybrid work. While an employer may determine that remote/hybrid work is not reasonable because of the nature of the job, performance or misconduct issues, or other reasons, employers need to at least consider a request for remote/hybrid work, even if their policies generally limit or don’t allow it.

Effectively address mental health conditions. Since the pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. adults who have a mental health condition. In addition to effectively and sensitively handling situations involving mental health issues, employers should proactively address mental health in the workplace.

Carefully handle medical inquiries and exams. Medical inquires and exams must be job-related and supported by a business reason and can only occur after an employer makes a conditional job offer. While that sounds simple enough, this area is complicated and a hot spot for potential problems.

Jana O’Leary Sullivan is an attorney and assistant litigation supervisor with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1243.