Under Massachusetts law, Chapter 151B, if a company is aware that an employee is struggling based upon a disability or serious medical condition, the company cannot ignore the situation. In fact, the company has a legal obligation to “engage in the interactive process” with the employee. In plain English, this means that a company has to have a conversation with the employee to see if there is anything that the company can do to accommodate the employee.
Does the company have to provide any accommodation that will fix the problem, or that the employee requests? No, the accommodation needs to be a reasonable accommodation.
For example, John Doe works for the Acme Company that owns a 2-story building in Boston. During John Doe’s employment, he suffers from chronic spinal problems that worsen by the month.
If John Doe struggles to climb stairs to his second floor office in an old office building that does not have an elevator, can John Doe force the Acme Company to install an elevator? No, probably not because the costs of retrofitting a 2-story office building in Boston would likely be extremely cost prohibitive. However, if John Doe requests that the company allow him to swap offices with an employee of the first floor, that probably would be regarded as a “reasonable” accommodation.
Recently the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (“MRC”) was found liable (guilty) of not engaging in the interactive process with an employee who has a learning disability. Ironically, the very purpose of the MRC is to promote equality, empowerment and independence of individuals with disabilities. Indeed, the author of this article believes that this may have been a factor in the judgment against the MRC for over $200,000.00.
The MRC knew that the employee had a learning disability. The employee expressed that he needed assistance learning how to use the computer system. Instead of discussing possible accommodations, such as videotaping the training session so that the employee could have practiced on his own time, the boss was impatient and callous toward the employee with the learning disability.
The obligation to engage in the interactive process doesn’t just apply to companies. If an employee needs an accommodation based upon a disability, but it is not obvious to the company, then the employee has the obligation to initiate the interactive process with the company. Both the employer and the employee have an obligation – moral and legal – to cooperatively explore reasonable solutions to allow the employee the opportunity to contribute to the company by identifying and implementing a reasonable accommodation.
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