California workers have rights protecting them from discrimination and ensuring equal opportunities at work. The interactive process under FEHA is one of the most important aspects of these rights for workers with a disability. Employers and employees have specific responsibilities under FEHA when it comes to the interactive process. We will discuss what the interactive process is, what triggers it, and what employers and employees can do to ensure a fair and accommodating workplace in this article.
What is the Interactive Process?
The interactive process under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) is a legally mandated, collaborative communication and problem-solving procedure between employers and employees. Its primary purpose is to identify and implement reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities to ensure equal employment opportunities and prevent workplace discrimination based on disability.
In its most basic form, the interactive process is about communication and cooperation between the employee and the employer to identify and provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.
Triggering the Interactive Process
To initiate the interactive process, the employee must first make their disability or need for accommodation known to the employer. Here are the essential steps to trigger this process:
- Disclose the Disability: Unless the disability is obvious (and it rarely is), employees should inform their employer about their disability or medical condition, including how it affects their ability to perform job-related tasks.
- Request Accommodations: Employees must clearly request reasonable accommodations that would enable them to perform their job effectively despite their disability.
- Provide Medical Documentation: An employee can request an accommodation without a doctor’s note but employers may request medical documentation to verify the disability and the need for accommodation.
Once the interactive process has been triggered, employers have specific obligations under the law to ensure they are providing a fair and accommodating workplace:
- Engage in Good Faith: Employers must engage in the interactive process in good faith. This means taking the employee’s request seriously and making a sincere effort to identify reasonable accommodations. If an employer immediately and unilaterally responds to a request for accommodation that no accommodation can be made, this might not be considered a good faith engagement if the employee works at a large company with many locations in the state.
- However, if this is a small mom-pop store-front shop and the request is made to the owner, it might be considered a good faith response. It all depends on the facts, so consult with an attorney if you have questions!
- Open Communication: Employers must maintain open and effective communication with the employee throughout the process. This includes discussing potential accommodations, requesting medical documentation if necessary, and providing updates on progress.
- Identify Reasonable Accommodations: Employers must work with the employee to identify reasonable accommodations that would enable the employee to perform their essential job functions. Essential job functions are the core responsibilities or tasks that are fundamental to the nature of the job. They are the primary reasons the position exists.
- These accommodations should be tailored to the individual’s needs.
- Document the Process: Employers should document all interactions and efforts related to the interactive process. This documentation can serve as evidence of compliance with FEHA if a dispute arises.
Common Mistakes Made by Employees
- Failure to Disclose: One common mistake employees make is not disclosing their disability or need for accommodation to their employer. Generally, without this information, the interactive process cannot begin.
However, the interactive process can be triggered based on a perceived disability. FEHA prohibits discrimination based on actual disabilities as well as perceived disabilities. This means that if an employer perceives an employee or job applicant as having a disability (even if the individual does not have a disability), and the employer takes adverse actions or fails to provide reasonable accommodations because of this perception, it can still be a violation of FEHA.
- Vague Requests: Employees should be clear and specific when requesting accommodations. A vague request may lead to misunderstandings and delays in the process.
On the other hand, an employee doesn’t need to identify the specific job in the company that they could do. The employee should clearly state their limitations and provide examples of things they can do. For example, the employee can state that they can lift a case of water or that they can continuously stand for approximately 20 minutes.
- Lack of Medical Documentation: In some cases, employees fail to provide the necessary medical documentation to support their request for accommodation. This can hinder the employer’s ability to evaluate the request properly.
If the injury occurred at work, file a workers’ compensation case so you can be sent to the company’s medical provider. They can provide you with a doctor’s note. If the injury did not happen at work, usually, the quickest way to get a doctor’s note is to go to urgent care.
Common Mistakes Made by Employers
- Ignoring Requests: Employers may sometimes disregard or dismiss an employee’s request for accommodation, which can lead to legal trouble because they have not engaged in the interactive process in good faith.
- Delaying the Process: Failing to respond promptly to accommodation requests can also be problematic. Employers should act promptly to address the employee’s needs. Delaying the process can also be seen as an employer not engaging in the interactive process in good faith.
- Inadequate Documentation: Employers may neglect to document their efforts during the interactive process. Proper documentation is essential to demonstrate compliance with FEHA. Employers should document each meeting with at least summaries of what was discussed. Employers should also document what they did in order to find jobs that the employee could do with their restrictions. Employers sometimes forget that providing a medical leave of absence is also a form of accommodation.
The interactive process is a vital component of the Fair Employment and Housing Act in California, ensuring that employees with disabilities have equal opportunities in the workplace. Employees must disclose their disabilities, request accommodations clearly, and provide medical documentation. Employers, in turn, must engage in good faith, communicate openly, identify reasonable accommodations, and document the process.
Understanding these responsibilities can help both employees and employers navigate the interactive process effectively and ensure a fair and inclusive work environment for all.
About The Author
Roger Haag is an attorney who specializes in consumer, labor, and employment law, primarily representing employees. Mr. Haag has extensive experience in various legal proceedings, including arbitration hearings, administrative hearings, bench and jury trials, and has even presented arguments before the California Courts of Appeal. Additionally, Mr. Haag served in the United States Navy and also has professional experience with the Department of the Navy’s Civilian Acquisition Workforce and Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel in Washington D.C.
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