"I need some home time."
"My doctor thinks I need some home time."
What's the difference between these two statements? What impact might the difference have on your company's obligation to determine if it can provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee? Most importantly, do your front-line supervisors know the difference and know what to do when an employee makes a statement like these?
The Americans With Disabilities Act (and similar state statutes) places obligations on employers to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities. Generally, before that obligation will arise, an employee has to make a request for a reasonable accommodation. The sticky part is what exactly constitutes a request for a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC and most courts have taken the position that when an individual informs the employer that some kind of workplace modification (in this case, work schedule) is needed because of a "medical condition," that is sufficient to qualify as a request for an accommodation. The request does not have to be in writing, or go to HR, or contain any special language. It simply needs to be sufficient to put the "employer" (which includes anybody in a supervisory position) on notice of the need for a change or adjustment because of a medical condition.
We all know to whom the vast majority of such "requests" are going to be made - front-line supervisors. These are the people your employees are going to talk to about such issues. It is crucial, then, that your front-line supervisors recognize a request for a reasonable accommodation when they hear one. The failure to engage with the employee in the reasonable accommodation process can have unfortunate and costly results for an employer. What is likely to happen if the supervisor does not recognize the request, and pass it along to HR for action, is that the employee's performance will deteriorate because the employee has not received the needed accommodation, leading to discipline and ultimately termination. The employee will then talk to a friend, who talked to a friend, etc., who will suggest the employee talk to a lawyer. And then the company will face a lawsuit for disability discrimination and failure to reasonably accommodate, forcing the employer at a minimum to incur attorney fees in defending the action, and quite possibly a hefty judgment for damages and the employee's attorney fees.
The solution? Have your front-line supervisors trained to recognize a request for a reasonable accommodation when they hear it so they can pass it along to HR. Such training does not take long and is not expensive, particularly when compared to the cost of defending a lawsuit.