Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if you have a disability, you have the right to workplace accommodations that are reasonable.
Reasonable accommodations are changes to your workplace that allow you to do your job despite your disability. Accommodations could include changes to any of the following:
If you have a disability as defined by the ADA, you might also be entitled to time off from work as an accommodation—as long as it doesn't create an undue hardship for your employer.
Disabled employees might need time off work for health reasons, including time off for:
The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities. This means your employer must treat you the same as other employees, including:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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).
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.
When you're ready to return to work, you might need additional accommodations. For example, you might have:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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