Question: For employees working from home, we currently don’t provide reimbursement for furniture without a doctor’s note stating a need for an ergonomic chair or desk. If we require someone to work from home more than half the time, do we have to purchase an ergonomic chair other than for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) purposes?
Answer: Probably not. You’re correct that the provision of specialized equipment (including, potentially, an ergonomic chair or special desk) can be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, but you likely have no obligation to provide such equipment to employees unless they are disabled within the meaning of the Act and you determine through the interactive process the equipment requested may reasonably accommodate their disabilities by allowing them to
perform the essential job functions.
Disabled employees generally have the obligation under the ADA to initiate the interactive process by identifying the need for an accommodation, but you might also have to independently initiate the interactive process if employees have obvious disabilities that require accommodation. Unless you’re addressing a disability concern under the ADA, however, you likely have no obligation to provide reimbursement for specialized furniture for employees simply because they are working from home.
Exceptions might include if your employees have employment agreements obligating you to provide reimbursement for such furniture. Or if your employee handbook promises reimbursement for such furniture, you may practically be obligated to provide it, although employees generally have difficulty proving promises in handbooks are legally enforceable (at least assuming handbooks have adequate disclaimers and reserve your right to unilaterally change terms and conditions of employment).
If you haven’t previously promised reimbursement for specialized equipment for remote workers in contracts, handbooks, or otherwise, you likely have no obligation to provide such reimbursement outside the ADA context.