The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require employers to always allow disabled people to return to the job. In order to claim protection under the law, the disabled employee must show that he or she can perform the job’s essential functions. The employer is never required to reinstate an employee who cannot perform these functions, even with accommodations in place.
However, in some circumstances, employers agree to allow employees to return to work in a capacity that does not include their ability to perform all essential functions. Light duty programs are the most common form of these voluntary accommodations. By definition, light duty jobs do not include the core functions normally performed by the employee. In many cases, employers provide light duty as a way to mitigate workers’ compensation expenses, but in others the employer simply agrees to temporarily allow the employee to return to work in a different capacity.
In some situations, these voluntarily modified duty positions can lead to later legal claims, especially when the employee believes the accommodations are permanent. When the employer informs the employee that it can no longer continue the reduced duty position, the employee sometimes claims that he or she was reassigned to a permanent alternative job, and that the removal of this job constitutes discrimination under the ADA. This can lead to legal claims that ultimately may be defensible but require the employer to engage in an expensive and lengthy process.
Employers that agree to provide job changes beyond ADA requirements can help avoid misunderstandings and later claims by establishing expectations at the outset of the reassignment. The employee receiving light duty should receive a written explanation acknowledging the fact that essential job functions are being temporarily removed. The employer should establish a time limit for the alternative work, usually no more than one year. Finally, if the employee receives a performance evaluation while on light or reduced duty, that evaluation should document the fact that the employee’s work did not include performance of all essential functions during that time period.
By establishing limits on the reduced duty program, and documenting the employee’s understanding of these limits, the employer avoids a situation where the employee later claims that he or she believes that the reassignment was permanent. These steps make it easier from the legal and employee relations perspective to end the temporary reassignment once the employer reaches the end of its ability to provide voluntary accommodations.