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The Interactive Process in California: What You Need To Know

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If you are a disabled worker in California, you have a right to reasonable accommodations. California’s procedure for discussing and implementing workplace accommodations is called interactive process. This process facilitates communications between your employer so both parties can agree on ways to accommodate your needs while helping you perform your job well.

Learn how to navigate the interactive process effectively, what documentation to bring when asking for accommodations, and when an employment law attorney can help ensure fair treatment.

What is the Interactive Process in California?

In California, employers are legally required to engage in a mediation process known as the interactive process, as mandated by state and federal laws. This requirement is established under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the California Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA) (FEHA). The interactive process in California applies to companies with five or more employees and covers all types of disabilities, both physical and mental.

Under the interactive ADA process, if an employer believes a worker may have a disability or if a worker mentions having one, the company must consider appropriate adjustments to help them. Common examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Adjusting or modifying work schedules
  • Requesting flexible work hours
  • Restructuring your job or requesting adjustments to non-essential work tasks
  • Access to a qualified reader or interpreter
  • Adjustments or modifications to training, policies, and exams
  • Access to adapted equipment and work materials, such as ergonomic furniture or disability-friendly software
  • Access to alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs
  • Access to paid or unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the California Family Rights Act (CFRA)

The interactive dialogue process consists of a timely and good-faith discussion between both parties to ensure the accommodations provided are reasonable, fit the employee’s needs, and allow them to work without undue burden on the employer.

When Do You Need to Initiate the Interactive Process?

The law requires initiating the California interactive process as soon as the need for accommodation has been identified. Both the employer and the employee can initiate the process at their discretion, each under different circumstances.

As an employee, you can begin the process by:

  • Verbal disclosure. Initiate the process by verbally telling your employer that you have a condition affecting your ability to work. You don’t need to use formal language or explicitly ask for an accommodation.
  • Written disclosure. Inform your employer of your disability in writing instead of verbally to start the interactive process. Like with verbal disclosure, you are not obligated to use formal language.
  • Request for reasonable accommodations. Make a formal request for disability accommodation by filling out the California Reasonable Accommodation Package form. Your employer must acknowledge it and initiate the process in response.

Your employer may initiate this ADA interactive process without a direct mention from you or another employee. This typically happens under the following circumstances:

  • Performance observations. If your employer believes a disability is impacting your work performance, they may initiate a good-faith interactive process with you. Your employer must exercise discretion and respect your right to privacy.
  • Observed changes in health conditions. An employer who notices changes in your health or well-being can initiate the process if they believe these changes require accommodations. For example, if you have returned to work after a back surgery, your employer may offer accommodations, such as an ergonomic chair or more flexible work hours for therapy.

What are Your Responsibilities During the Interactive Process?

After initiating the ADA interactive process, you and your employer must meet and discuss suitable accommodations to continue working safely. Responsibilities on your California interactive process checklist include:

  • Disclosing enough disability information. You don’t need to share your complete medical history with your employer, but you should provide sufficient details about how your condition impacts your job performance. Your employer may ask for documentation or further information to understand your disability and make an informed decision.
  • Specify your needs. You must specify your needs to help your employer find tailored accommodations for your situation. Describe the problems your disability causes, such as tasks that have become more challenging or impossible for you, and ask about potential accommodations that could help you adapt.
  • Participate in the process. You are required to participate in the interactive process, meaning you must be proactive in attending meetings, responding to your employer’s communications, and suggesting potential accommodations. The process is designed to help you and your employer collaboratively identify the right solutions for your needs.

What Must Your Employer Do When Meeting With You During the Interactive Process?

The CRD outlines several employer responsibilities during the reasonable accommodation interactive process. When engaging with HR or management at your job, they should be doing the following:

  • Engage you promptly. Your employer must do their part to ensure accommodation discussions begin promptly. They should not wait or delay the process after becoming aware of your disability or need for workplace adjustments.
  • Respect your privacy. Employers are responsible for maintaining confidentiality and protecting your privacy during the interactive process. This is because you may be required to disclose sensitive information, such as medical details.
  • Keep an open mind. The law requires employers to approach you in good faith. This means they must approach you and discuss your accommodation needs with an open mind. They must listen to and acknowledge your needs and proposals when exploring potential accommodation options.
  • Document the process. Your employer must keep records of the interactive process and every detail you discuss together. For instance, they should keep a list of proposed accommodation options, such as specialized ergonomic equipment, flexible schedules, or modified work tasks. These records can help clarify each party’s intentions and demonstrate the employer was aware of your needs and requests if a dispute arises.
  • Provide accommodations. The goal of the interactive process is to ensure reasonable accommodations are made. Employers are required to meet your needs as fully as possible. The only exceptions are if the accommodations you request are unreasonable or would cause significant difficulty or expense to the business.

Do You Have to Agree With a Suggested Accommodation?

The decision to agree on workplace accommodations for your disability should be collaborative. No one party in the process may impose a decision on the other; if you believe your employer’s proposed accommodations are insufficient, you have the right to refuse.

You also have the right to continuously review a previously accepted accommodation and determine whether it continues to meet your needs. You can ask for follow-up and further adjustments if you believe that current accommodations no longer meet your needs.

When You May Need Legal Representation

When an employer is uncooperative, refuses to provide reasonable accommodations, or fails to uphold their responsibilities, you may need legal representation to protect your rights in the workplace. Here are potential situations where you should seek legal assistance:

  • Failure to resolve internally. You should always attempt to resolve accommodation disputes and disagreements internally before taking legal action. However, if the employer ignores the issue or conditions worsen, a qualified disability discrimination attorney can help you mediate a solution or hold your employer accountable for violating ADA employment laws.
  • Failure to engage. If your employer hasn’t started the interactive process, avoided or delayed it, or did not provide reasonable accommodations, a lawyer can help prove they violated your rights under the ADA and FEHA.
  • Denying accommodations. Your employer is required to provide some form of accommodation for your disability at the end of the interactive process. If they fail to do so without a valid reason, legal counsel can help you challenge the decision.
  • Retaliation. You may be the victim of retaliation if you were demoted, disciplined, terminated, or unfairly treated after participating in the interactive process. A discrimination lawyer can help you explore your legal options and guide you through filing a retaliation complaint.

With an attorney’s help, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit seeking damages for missed wages, wrongful termination, and emotional distress due to your employer’s behavior. Your lawyer can reference the California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI), specifically CACI 2546, to detail how your employer failed to engage in the interactive process, helping you win a fair settlement.

Protect Your Rights as a Disabled Worker

If you are a disabled worker, your employer is required by state and federal law to provide reasonable workplace accommodations so you can continue working. To protect these rights, make sure you understand the interactive process and what’s required of you and your employer.

If your employer refuses to engage in good faith, fails to provide the right adjustments, or engages in retaliation, you can take legal action with the help of a skilled employment attorney. They can help you hold your employer accountable, protect your rights to workplace adjustments, and obtain compensation for your damages.

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