In the second episode of a three-part series on ADA, we walk through the steps of the ADA interactive process and share tips on how employers and employees can collaborate on accommodation options. Tune into the latest Line on Leave episode to hear The Hartford’s ADA Coach, Alicia Heine, and Assistant Director of Absence Solutions, John Robinson explain more about employer responsibilities and provide examples of the interactive process.
Laura Marzi: Hi everyone. I'm Laura Marzi. Thank you for tuning into our latest Line on Leave Podcast from The Hartford. We're excited to bring the second installment of our series on the ADA, which is the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how it specifically is related to leave and absence management. Last time we discussed the basics of the federal law and employer responsibilities, and we also touched on how employers and their employees can work closely together to come up with effective workplace accommodations. That collaboration is known as the interactive process. And under the ADA, it's a critical part to help employees remain a meaningful, productive member of the workforce. So I'm very happy to welcome back today our ADA specialists from The Hartford. Alicia Heine serves as our ADA coach and John Robinson is an Assistant Director of our Absence Solutions. John also teaches ADA through our continuing education courses.
We're going to start off with a question for Alicia. The interactive process is really more of a conversation, right? And I'm wondering who and what triggers it?
Alicia Heine: Yes. The interactive process can be triggered by the employee or the employer. The employee may ask for some type of an assistance, but it's also up to the employer to offer assistance if they see an employee having difficulties. And yes, it is just a conversation about what might be solutions for that individual. For example, if an employer has a situation where they're noticing that an employee is having a difficulty hearing on the phone and the employee's volume is at a maximum capacity, then the employer might be able to engage that employee to say, "Gee, I noticed you're having some difficulty hearing on the phone. Would you need a different headset or some type of an amplifier to help you?" That's an example of how you can engage an employee in that interactive discussion.
Laura Marzi: So what are the employee's responsibilities coming into all of this? Don't some people already have a good idea of what might work?
Alicia Heine: Absolutely. There are times when an employee may really know what might work for them, perhaps even from their non-work life. For example, if they got a situation where they've got maybe carpal tunnel and their home computer has voice activation software, that might be something that they could suggest to the employer as a possible accommodation. But it's not always something that the employee may have a solution for it. They may know what part of the job that they're having a difficulty with, but they might not know what a solution is. And that's when they really want to engage in some discussion with the employer to see what solutions might be out there. And if the employer doesn't have a solution, they can actually do some research coming into the conversation. There's some great resources out there, like the Job Accommodation Network, where there's real help to look at different types of accommodations that are available for different types of conditions.
Laura Marzi: Okay. Got it. Can you take us through the steps of the interactive process?
Alicia Heine: Sure. First of all, there is the important part of recognizing that there's a need or a request, and then gathering the information to support that. It may mean getting information from the healthcare provider to find out what the condition is. The healthcare provider might actually have some suggestions on what types of accommodations are available. And then really exploring options, keeping an open mind, looking at the different types of things that might assist that individual. Engaging in that discussion that dialog, that interactive process. And as an employee, suggest ideas coming in, knowing what might work for the employer and what might not work for the employer, because that's an important part of it too. It's really got to work for both parties.
And then once you have that type of a discussion and you do select an accommodation and you implement that accommodation, then the next thing really as important is to really check up with that employee, monitor that progress, see if that accommodation is working. And if it's not working, really look at that again and see what kinds of changes might be able to be made to make it successful.
Laura Marzi: I'm wondering for our listeners if we could actually even walk through an example or two of how this works. Maybe we can start with a scenario. Alicia is an employee who wants to ask for additional leave time, and John, you can be the HR person who has to consider her request. How would this work?
John Robinson: All right. Hello B, it's really nice to see you. How can I help you today?
Alicia Heine: Well, it's nice to be back, but you know, I'm out on FML and I'm still really not ready to go back to work. We're having a really hard time at home right now and I really can't think straight.
John Robinson: Well, B, thank you so much for coming in and letting me know. There are some additional programs that we can talk about that may be able to help. And I want to get you the help that you need for you and your family. The Americans with Disabilities Act, and we call that ADA, may be able to provide you with some additional time to recover.
Alicia Heine: Really? Thank you so much. I am so relieved. It's been weighing on my mind just so much.
John Robinson: Well, you've already done the most important piece and that's coming in and talking to me about this. Please remember, I am going to be keeping all of your information confidential.
The next step is to really sit down and identify how long you may need to be off. And then let's get that medical information from your physician that's going to support that time off.
Alicia Heine: Okay. I’m meeting with my therapist twice a week and I can get you that medical information. I just sent it to our disability carrier too. My therapist is saying maybe another six weeks of time.
John Robinson: Okay, I'm going to need to alert your supervisor of that time request, but we'll not be sharing any of your medical, like I said. I'm just going to let her know that we're reviewing for an ADA accommodation right now, and that accommodation is going to be for additional leave time.
Alicia Heine: That's wonderful, but I'm also really concerned about my medical benefits. Will I be able to keep them?
John Robinson: Absolutely. ADA does provide continuation of those benefits. You will need to pay your portion of course, and we're going to talk about how that works, but your benefits are going to continue and also your job is going to be protected.
I also wanted to ask you though, just to keep the conversation out there, do you think maybe a part-time return to work would be possible maybe three days a week or maybe working half days? Just kind of wanted to keep all of our options on the table so that we can really focus on getting you back into the office.
Alicia Heine: I'm not really sure about that, but I will talk to my therapist. I really want to get back to work and half days may be good in a couple of weeks.
John Robinson: Great. I just wanted to keep those options open, as I said, and remember if you try it and it doesn't work, it's okay. We're going to continue to partner together to do what's right for you, for your family, and for the company.
Alicia Heine: Thank you so much. This has really helped me greatly. I'll get that medical and bring it in and then we can meet next week.
John Robinson: Okay. I'm going to set up a meeting for us right now, same time and day next week. Will that be okay?
Alicia Heine: Absolutely. I'll see you then. And again, thank you so very much.
John Robinson: All right B. Thank you too for coming in and we're going to make this work.
So as you can see, we had a really good conversation. It's just the employee and the employee putting all their cards on the table and understanding, making a timeline for next steps, gathering that medical information, and also being open about other opportunities. I just like to say, when I'm off there talking, ADA really wants to see if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. So maybe if the first option, six or eight weeks off, full time doesn't work, but maybe a part-time option would. Just keep that discussion ongoing and open, is the key to having a really good interactive process.
Laura Marzi: Oh gosh, that was great. Let's do another example. John, how about you're the employee in this scenario, and you've been out of work for a while and you need to discuss with Alicia, who is your company HR person, what type of accommodation you might need to come back to work.
John Robinson: Okay. So I'm a cashier at a local grocery store and I have not been released to work full time. I have some restrictions though. I can't lift over 20 pounds and I can't stand for over two hours.
Alicia Heine: Good morning, John. It's so good to see you. The team and the customers have really missed you.
John Robinson: Well, Alicia, I'm really glad to be back. I'm looking forward to working, but I do have some restrictions in coming back to work. I'm really not going to be able to lift over 20 pounds and I need to sit down every two hours. And I'm worried about this because my doctor said that if I don't follow this, I could really hurt my back again.
Alicia Heine: Okay, John, let's talk about what we can do to accommodate you. What parts of your job do you think you're going to need help with? And do you know how long you're going to have those restrictions?
John Robinson: Well, sometimes there are those things that the customers buy that are heavier than 20 pounds, like that kitty litter bag or the big bags of dog food, and I'm just not going to be able to lift that for them.
Alicia Heine: You know, John, I think I might have a solution for that. I was at one of the large wholesale clubs this weekend and they have people using those hand scanners. And at that time I was actually thinking that would be a good idea anyhow, as the customers and the cashiers wouldn't have to lift heavy items. They can just scan them right in their cart. Do you think that would work?
John Robinson: I think that would be great. I would love to be able to do my job except that I also need to sit for five minutes every two hours and that will just be for the next couple of weeks.
Alicia Heine: Okay. Well, I'll look into the scanner and that may take a couple of days. While I'm looking into that, how about we assign a teammate to work with you so if you get a customer who has an item that you can't lift, you can have them come and help you?
John Robinson: That would work. But remember, I still need to sit for about five minutes every two hours.
Alicia Heine: Okay. Let's see what we can do about that. You do have the two 15-minute breaks. What about if we made those breaks 10-minute breaks every two hours and then you have the break for lunch?
John Robinson: Thank you. That sounds perfect.
Alicia Heine: Good. I'll talk with the manager and make sure that she's aware of what we've agreed upon and that she can help to coordinate. Thank you so much, John. It will be so good to have you back.
John Robinson: Thank you, Alicia. I'm very excited to be back and thank you for helping me with this.
Alicia Heine: In this situation it really was that dialogue of really kind of some creative thinking about what might be able to help the employee to be able to come back to work. The employee was very forthcoming in what their restriction were and you knew that he wanted to come back to work. So it was really kind of that idea of collaborating to see what kinds of solutions we could come up with. It was also looking at the length of the accommodation, because if the accommodation was going to only be for a couple of days, we might not need to get a hand scanner. And since it was going to be for a longer period of time, that would be considered a reasonable accommodation. Certainly looping in the manager, who is going to be working with John to make sure all of this is coordinated, is also a really critical piece of all this and letting them know what the accommodations are as well as the length of the time of the accommodation. It's a win-win. The employee is able to return to work and we're able to get our employee back and productive.
John Robinson: Alicia, I love that win-win term. I know we've been talking about it for years, right Alicia? On return to work programs and how beneficial they are. So ADA really supports that. I do want to be the voice of reason though. Remember employers, when you're working with ADA, document everything. Request, action, outcome, so that you're really being able to provide the support should the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come in and do an audit, that every single request has been documented. And the end result with that true goal of certainly full-time full duty for employees, but you're showing all of the pieces from the interactive process through the duration of the accommodation.
Laura Marzi: That was great. I think that the role-plays actually really helped bring everything to life. I really appreciate the insights and wanted to thank you both, John and Alicia, for your time and your perspective. I also want to thank our listeners because they do have an opportunity to hear another third and final installment in our ADA podcast series. The next one, John and Alicia are going to go back and talk about the complexities around compliance and they're also going to share some ADA success stories as well.
So as always, if you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast and share it with your colleagues. You can always visit us at https://www.thehartford.com/pfml for more information, resources, to help you manage absence in the workplace. Until next time, be well and stay safe, everyone. Thank you.