Providing Temporary Accommodations for Employee Disability

It’s never easy to navigate the legal requirements when an employee has a medical condition or  disability.  One of the many complications is providing a “reasonable accommodation,” a process that often requires significant time and careful consideration of how and what medical information can be obtained and scrutinized. 

In providing accommodations, some employers hesitate to relieve employees from certain “essential job functions” temporarily while the employee is recovering from a medical condition, or while it’s unclear how long a condition will last.  Based on the First Circuit’s decision in Jones v. Walgreens, Inc., et al., however, relieving an employee temporarily from certain “essential job functions” does not require the employer to permanently eliminate those essential job functions from the employee’s job.

In Jones, plaintiff-employee Jones, a Walgreens store manager, had been on several leaves of absence from January 2004 to October 2005 after suffering a knee injury when she slipped on ice outside Walgreens’ office.  In her second leave of absence, Jones indicated that she hoped to return to work with “reasonable accommodations.”  Walgreens welcomed her back to work with some physical lifting, bending, squatting and twisting limitations.  Twenty-two months later, in October 2005, Walgreens offered her a store manager position in a different location.  Jones accepted the offer but indicated she would still need accommodations based on her physical limitations.  Almost another year later, in September 2006, Jones indicated that she still had physical limitations.  Her physician also indicated that she had certain permanent physical restrictions.  As a result, Walgreens terminated Jones’s employment. 

In suing Walgreens under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Massachusetts corollary, General Laws, Chapter 151B, Jones argued, among other things, that because certain job functions had been reduced, reassigned or reallocated, those tasks could not be “essential.”  The First Circuit disagreed, stating:

The fact that certain tasks associated with a particular position can be either reduced, reassigned, or reallocated to a subordinate does not, by itself, render them non-essential to the position they were associated to in the first place.”

Because Jones’s own doctor stated that her certain physical restrictions were permanent, Walgreens was not required to continue to employ her as a store manager because she could not perform the “essential functions” of her job. 

The First Circuit, quoting Laurin v. Providence Hosp., emphasized that:

An employer does not concede that a job function is ‘non-essential’ simply by voluntarily assuming the limited burden associated with a temporary accommodation.”

In Walgreens’ case, the adage “no good deed goes unpunished” did not ring true.  Careful documentation, paired with patience working through Jones’s leaves of absence and accommodations until her physician confirmed that certain physical limitations were permanent, eventually helped the company to justify Jones’s termination of employment – even if it was five and a half years later.