Return-to-Work Accommodations and Modifications: What Employers Should Know

A return-to-work (RTW) program helps an employee who has suffered an extended illness or injury return to work as efficiently and safely as possible. An effective RTW program helps the employee regain or maintain his or her place in the workforce and helps reduce costs related to absences, disability benefits, overtime, hiring temporary workers, and training new staff.

A significant component of RTW is providing job accommodations and modifications to employees returning to work. Accommodations not only help the employees effectively and safely do their jobs, they may also be required. In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which clarified and broadened the way courts interpret the term “disability.” Many individuals with temporarily disabling medical conditions or injuries, including employees returning to work after a short or longer-term disability, may now be covered under the law.

Here are some important facts you should know when building your RTW program to help ensure compliance with the ADAAA.

Accommodation vs. Modification

Typically, an accommodation is something that will assist an individual in completing a task without changing the expected outcome (such as a lift table to assist with lifting). A modification, on the other hand, is something that changes the expected outcome (such as removing the task that requires lifting).

The Request Process

An employee does not need to formally request an accommodation or modification. An employee simply needs to make you aware of the need for an accommodation or indicate he or she is having difficulty with a job requirement(s). As the employer, it is important that you document the request and all the actions taken to address it. Additionally, you may request documentation from the employee’s physician outlining specific restrictions or limitations and the modifications or accommodations needed.

Common Types of Requests

Accommodations and modifications typically fall into three areas: positional (sitting or standing), lifting, and endurance. These are often accomplished with little to no cost.

Job Expectations

As an employer, you may think it is always necessary to change essential job functions as a way to accommodate a recently returned worker. While in some instances job functions may need to be modified, it is often the case that accommodations simply address how the job is done, not what is done. However, as an employer, it is ultimately your decision as to how you want to structure the role and associated responsibilities. By understanding the basics of accommodations and modifications and how they fit into your RTW planning, you will be better able to handle requests and help your employees do their jobs efficiently and safely.

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The illustrations, instructions, and principles in this material are general in scope and, to the best of our knowledge, current at the time of publication. No attempt has been made to interpret any referenced codes, standards, or regulations nor to identify all potential risks or requirements.