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How Workplace Accommodation Works

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How Workplace Accommodation WorksI recently provided a workshop for a client on workplace accommodation and a couple of the participants came to me afterward to talk about specific situations they were having in their respective worksites. Both of them were working with employees who had been off sick for an extended period of time and they seemed fearful to seek information from the returning employees.

I thought that it might be worth providing some information on how to manage a return to work or workplace accommodation so that some of that fear could be removed – if these two had concerns – there may be others.

  1. First and foremost, an employer has a right to keep in touch with an employee who is off for a prolonged period of time.  No, they cannot call daily; however, they can certainly call every couple of weeks to see how they are doing and see if there is any approximate date of return.  Depending on the nature of the illness (or injury) calls may be made once a month if you know that the time away will be lengthy.
  2. You can ask questions that will assist in accommodating an employee’s return to work and you can request doctor’s reports.
  3. Quite often, it is helpful for a doctor to have a copy of a job description so that he or she can provide you with information as to what types of tasks the employee can perform when ready to return.  Be sure to include hours of work so the doctor can provide information on how that should be managed as well as the list of duties. (Note: you are not entitled to obtain a diagnosis of a condition but you can certainly obtain details on how the condition will impact the job.)
  4. When an employee requests accommodation because he or she cannot work full hours or return to full duties, you should confirm what they can or cannot do and set up a return to work program for the employee.  The employee must also be willing to work with the employer in managing the return.
  5. The employer must be sure that the doctor’s orders are being adhered to – even if the employee says that he or she can do more – the objective is to have him/her return to work safely.
  6. Sit down with the employee when he or she returns and go over the plan together.  Make it clear that there will be expectations in terms of reporting on any problems or concerns to ensure there are no misunderstandings. If you are the supervisor, this discussion will be between you and the employee.  If you have a human resources or health and safety officer, the discussion should occur between that person, the supervisor and the employee.
  7. Be sure that good records are kept concerning the employee’s return.  How well is he or she managing with the work schedule and duties that have been assigned?
  8. Be willing to discuss options if the accommodation initially started doesn’t appear to be working. Being open to ideas will help in having a successful return.
  9. If you don’t feel you have enough information about an employee’s condition to consider options realistically, ask for further information and gain consent from the employee to seek further details about his/her illness from his/her doctor.  Remember, the employee must also be willing to work with the employer in finding a suitable option.
  10. Keep all information that is shared by the employee and doctor private.  All the supervisor needs to know (if you are human resources or a safety officer) is how the medical condition will affect the carrying out of job duties.
  11. You are entitled to know the prognosis for recovery and if the medical situation is temporary; an estimated time of complete return to normal duties is a reasonable question to ask.
  12. If the prognosis for recovery is not good, in terms of full recovery; think about other positions could the employee be considered for.
  13. You are not required, as an employer, to create a new position for the employee.
  14. You are able to seek an independent medical assessment if you feel you cannot accommodate the employee over a long period of time or you do not have a suitable position.  The most important thing, as mentioned, is getting the employee back to work safely and without further complications.
  15. It is not acceptable to seek a medical exam simply out of concern that an employee’s condition may get worse or return.  The only reason that an employer should consider another opinion (outside of that provided by the employee’s physician or specialists) is to ensure a safe return and be clear about duties the employee can perform.
  16. Above all – stay positive and be serious about looking for solutions that will be of benefit to everyone.
  17. Open communication is encouraged.
  18. Documentation is a must.

Remember, you probably won’t find a perfect solution – that’s not what you are required to do.  The employee is entitled to a solution that meets their medical needs and if there doesn’t appear to be an immediate solution – consider options.

An employee has the duty to work with the employer in finding reasonable solutions – not perfect solutions.  Be sure that if an employee does refuse to cooperate with a reasonable solution, that documentation is made.  Have the employee explain in detail what is not acceptable about the solution and see if he or she has options you may not have considered.

Last, but not least; allow a reasonable amount of time to determine if the accommodation is working.  Keep in touch with the employee to make sure that any adjustments that need to be made are made.
While it can seem like a rather difficult process to go through, and employers fear the term “duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship” it does not mean that the employee can call the shots on the return to work.  Employers and employees have rights in the whole process.

If in doubt about how to manage a workplace accommodation, speak with your legal representation or human resources consultant for further information.

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