Omid Nosrati

California's employment protections for disabled workers

Just because someone has a disability doesn't mean they won't be able to perform their job. Some, however, need different work arrangements in order to perform their work duties compared to co-workers that don't have a disability.

California law allows employees and job applicants with a disability to ask for reasonable accommodations. It also requires employers to provide them, and prohibits employers from punishing employees who ask to be accommodated.

If you, your child, or someone you love has a disability, understanding the law is the first step to making sure your rights are protected.  It is important to note that California law interprets disability in a broad and liberal manner to protect workers. For example, a workplace injury can be considered a disability if it limits a major life activity such as working. (Think of an employee who breaks their arm and needs time off from work for treatment or for healing)

What are "reasonable" accommodations?

An accommodation is "reasonable" if it allows the employee to perform their essential job duties without imposing an undue cost or burden on the employer.

In other words, the law does not require employers to do anything an employee asks. If there is an easier or less expensive way to accomplish the same goal, the employer may suggest something else.

Since every person's situation is different, there is no standard list of accommodations employees can choose from. However, these are some of the most common:

  • Accessibility software
  • An altered workstation
  • A flexible schedule to accommodate extra breaks or medical appointments
  • Telecommuting or work-from-home options
  • Permission to have a service animal on the worksite
  • Different job duties
  • Time off from work

What is the process for asking for help?

California requires employers to engage in an "interactive process" with regard to disability accommodations. This means that the employer and the employee should work together to come up with the best possible solution. To that end, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing offers a form that can be used to start the conversation.

Usually, employees start the process by asking for their disability to be accommodated. However, employers may also start the process if they are aware that an employee may need an accommodation.

Once the need for accommodation becomes known, the law requires employers to start the interactive process in a timely fashion.

What if the employer isn't acting fairly?

Sadly, not every employer follows the law. Sometimes it is because they don't understand or because they need to be educated about fair treatment of people with disabilities. In other cases, the motivation is more nefarious.

Remember, the law protects employees who make a good faith request for accommodation. If your employer is acting unfairly, you have a right to speak up. Talking to a lawyer is often the best first step to learn more about your rights and how to protect them.

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Omid Nosrati
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