Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

You might have the right to time off under the ADA unless it creates an undue hardship for your employer.

By , J.D.
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Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if you have a disability, you have the right to workplace accommodations that are reasonable. Reasonable accommodations could include changes to any of the following:

  • your job duties
  • your workspace
  • your work schedule, or
  • workplace policies or rules.

Sometimes disabled employees need time off work for health reasons, including time off for:

  • surgery
  • therapy
  • recovery
  • rest, or
  • ongoing medical treatment.

If you have a disability as defined by the ADA, you might be entitled to time off from work as an accommodation—as long as it doesn't create an undue hardship for your employer.

Disability Discrimination and Reasonable Accommodation

The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities. This means your employer must treat you the same as other employees, including:

  • privileges
  • benefits, and
  • time off work.

For example, suppose you request sick leave to recover from a disability. If your employer routinely grants sick leave requests from other employees, your request must also be granted. Not approving your sick leave would amount to treating you worse than other employees because of your disability, which is illegal under the ADA.

But the ADA's requirement to provide reasonable accommodations is a different type of legal obligation. Rather than treating you the same as employees who don't have disabilities, your employer might have to treat you differently to accommodate your disability.

For example, if new employees aren't allowed to take time off work until they've worked for the company for at least six months, your employer might need to depart from this rule if you need time off for a disability. Your employer can't simply point to its usual rule or policy and say, "we don't allow anyone to take time off during the first six months, so you can't take time off either."

Instead, your employer must give you time off as a reasonable accommodation, despite its usual rule, unless doing so would create an undue hardship.

Leave From Work as a Reasonable Accommodation

If your employer doesn't provide any type of sick or vacation leave, you might still be entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or FMLA. If your employer has a leave policy or you're entitled to leave under the FMLA or other laws, you can take time off for your disability and be guaranteed a job to come back to. The FMLA gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks off for a serious health condition—including many disabilities.

But if you're not eligible for FMLA leave (perhaps because your employer has fewer than 50 employees), you can still ask for time off work as a reasonable accommodation.

Reasonable accommodations without FMLA leave. Even when FMLA doesn't apply, if you need time off because of your disability, your employer must grant you a reasonable amount of time off unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the business.

For instance, if you need four weeks off work to recover from surgery and cancer treatment, you should be able to take that time off (unpaid) as a reasonable accommodation. To deny your request for medical leave, your employer would need to show that allowing you to take those four weeks off would create an undue hardship for the company.

Reasonable accommodation beyond FMLA leave. What if you need more time off than your employer's policy, the FMLA, or other law provides? For example, what if you need 16 weeks off work to recover from surgery and cancer treatment? The last 4 weeks of your leave would go beyond what the FMLA provides.

Under ADA rules, you still might be entitled to take that time off as a reasonable accommodation for your disability. Unless your employer can show that giving you four more weeks off would create an undue hardship for the business, your request for leave must be granted.

Limits to ADA accommodation rules. There are limits to what an employer is required to do to accommodate an employee with a disability. The ADA doesn't require your employer to:

  • provide paid leave as an accommodation (beyond what their usual policies allow), or
  • give you an indefinite period of leave.

If you and your doctor can't say when or whether you'll be able to return to work, your employer can deny your request for open-ended leave as an undue hardship.

Requesting Time Off as an Accommodation

If you'll need time off from work for your disability, you must request it. And although it's not required, it's best to make your request in writing, so you have a record of the date and details.

Let your employer know that you have a disability for which you need time off, as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Explain the following:

  • why you need time off
  • how much time you need, and
  • when you'll be able to return to work.

You might also attach a note from your doctor, explaining your need for leave.

Unplanned emergency time off. Of course, you can't always plan in advance. For example, if you need emergency surgery for a chronic condition that qualifies as a disability, you should let your employer know as soon as possible that you need time off as accommodation for your disability.

Once you make your request for reasonable accommodation, your employer must start a dialogue with you to figure out how to accommodate your disability. You aren't necessarily entitled to the exact time off that you request, as long as your employer provides an alternate accommodation that works.

Your employer can stay in touch while you're off work. During your time off, your employer can check in with you, as long as you're not being harassed. For example, if you take eight weeks off for cancer treatment, your employer can check in after a few weeks to ask how you're doing. Your employer could check in again as your leave comes to a close to find out whether and when you'll be able to return to work (and whether you'll need any accommodations when you come back).

What If You Need More Time Off Work?

You might need more leave than you originally thought. Perhaps your pain following surgery is greater than you expected, or your physical therapy is progressing more slowly than your doctor predicted. As soon as you know you'll need more time, tell your employer.

For instance, if you requested a month off for surgery, and you had to be hospitalized two weeks after your surgery for a life-threatening infection, you should tell your employer that you'll need more time. Ask your doctor to help you come up with a new time frame for returning to work.

What If You Need Accommodations to Return to Work?

When you're ready to return to work, you might need additional accommodations. For example, you might have:

  • lifting restrictions following back surgery
  • limited mobility after suffering a major injury, or
  • fatigue after cancer treatment.

As soon as you know that you might need accommodations to return to work, let your employer know. Your employer might need documentation and more information about your restrictions.

The same rules that apply to time off as a reasonable accommodation apply to other accommodations. Your employer must work with you to come up with effective reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job and won't create an undue hardship for the company.

When Is Time Off an Undue Hardship?

Undue hardship is generally defined as creating "significant difficulty or expense" for the company. Your employer doesn't have to provide an accommodation that creates an undue hardship, considering the following:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation (like hiring a temporary worker or paying overtime to cover your shifts)
  • the size and financial resources of the company (large corporations generally have more funds and flexibility to provide accommodation than a small company might)
  • the type of operation the business is—including its structure and the function of the workplace, and
  • the impact the accommodation will have on the operation of the facility—including how the accommodation affects other employees' abilities to do their jobs.

According to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), which enforces ADA rules, to determine whether an accommodation creates an undue hardship, your employer must look at how your absence will affect the company's ability to function. Under ADA rules, your employer isn't required to disrupt the essential operations of the business to accommodate your request for leave.

When Your Employer Won't Cooperate With Your Accommodation Request

Under the ADA, your employer must try to work with you to accommodate your disability. You should contact an experienced disability lawyer if your employer has done any of the following:

  • denied your request for time off
  • refused to discuss possible accommodations
  • refused to allow you to return to work, or
  • otherwise denied your request for reasonable accommodations.

A lawyer can assess whether your employer has violated the ADA and help you decide what to do about it.

Learn more about what you can do if your employer denies your request for reasonable accommodation.

Updated January 27, 2023

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