Does the law require transfers for employees seeking medical treatment?

Thumbnail image for stethoscope.jpgYou have an employee who hurts herself on the job and becomes disabled. Although she recovers to the point where she can perform the essential functions of her position without the need for accommodation, she requests a transfer to another one of your facilities so that she has better access to ongoing medical treatment.

Does the law require you to grant that transfer?

In this recent case (Sanchez v. Vilsack), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination in federal employment, and courts interpret like the Americans with Disabilities Act, may require this.

Now, we all should know that federal law requires employers to provide a disabled employee with a reasonable accommodation, if needed, to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of her position. The exception to that rule is if the accommodation would cause undue burden to the employer. Then, the accommodation is not reasonable.

There are many types of reasonable accommodations. Where the employee can no longer perform the essential functions of her job, one such accommodation may include reassignment to a vacant position if the employee is qualified for the job. 

But even if the disabled employee can perform the essential functions of her position, the Sanchez Court opined that the law may require more of employers:

[E]mployers are not relieved of their duty to accommodate when employees are already able to perform the essential functions of the job. Qualified handicapped employees who can perform all job functions may require reasonable accommodation to allow them to (a) enjoy the privileges and benefits of employment equal to those enjoyed by non-handicapped employees or (b) pursue therapy or treatment for their handicaps. In other words, an employer is obligated not to interfere, either through action or inaction, with a handicapped employee’s efforts to pursue a normal life.

Does this decision mean that all employers must permit disabled employees to transfer to seek medical treatment? Nope. Remember, if the transfer would cause undue burden to the employer, then it is not reasonable. Just remember that this can be a lofty burden. So be prepared to produce empirical evidence to justify denying the accommodation. Consider documenting transfer requests and the financial impact they have on your business. And don’t forget to engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee to determine which, if any, other accommodations may be available and reasonable. Maybe, there is another accommodation that, other than a transfer, than can inure to the benefit of both the employee and the employer.

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