Employment Coaches: A Reasonable Accommodation?

Is an employment coach a reasonable accommodation?

On September 19, 2018, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed suit against Party City Corporation in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire (the federal court) alleging that Party City in Nashua had unlawfully discriminated against a job candidate with autism and severe anxiety who required a job coach.  According to the complaint, Party City allegedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in the fall of 2017 when it refused to hire Ashley Waxman after learning of her disability and need for a reasonable accommodation in the form of a job coach; a service she had been receiving for years from Easter Seals and which would not have cost Party City anything.

The complaint further alleges that during an interview, Party City’s Hiring Manager made several comments, such as that people like Waxman were not good workers because they slept on the job and played with the props in the store and would listen to music with headphones instead of working.  Following this “interview,” the company declined to hire Waxman, yet chose to hire six sales associates, some with no prior experience, over the next nine days.  According to the complaint, by failing to hire Waxman, who had done successful job shadows in retail as well as volunteered at a day care center, Party City allegedly violated the ADA.

This case raises an often ambiguous area in employment law faced by many employers and employees: what is a reasonable accommodation?  Specifically, is a job coach a reasonable accommodation?

According to the EEOC, a job coach may qualify as a reasonable accommodation request.  The EEOC has issued press releases in cases similar to Waxman’s noting that, “an employer may be required to allow a job coach paid by a public or private social service agency to accompany the employee at the job site as a reasonable accommodation.”

A job coach is specifically listed as an example of a reasonable accommodation on the EEOC’s website for Questions & Answers about Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as follows:

Question: What specific types of reasonable accommodations may employees with intellectual disabilities need to do their jobs or to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment?

Answer: a job coach, who can:

  • assist the employee in learning how to do the job;
  • provide intensive monitoring, training, assessment, and support;
  • help develop a healthy working relationship between management and the employee by encouraging appropriate social interaction and maintaining open communications; and
  • assist the parties in determining what reasonable accommodation is needed.

Some courts outside of New Hampshire that have had an opportunity to examine whether a job coach constituted a reasonable accommodation have found that job coaches can constitute such a request in certain circumstances.  In these cases, courts have held that a temporary job coach to assist in the training of a qualified individual with a disability can be a reasonable accommodation, however, full-time job coaches providing more than just training cannot be a reasonable accommodation.  It will be interesting to see if the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire follows this reasoning or takes a different approach.

Like most reasonable accommodation requests, the analysis is highly fact driven.  Since recognizing and understanding intellectual and/or psychiatric disabilities can present challenges that are not raised with physical disabilities, employers must take care when analyzing whether an employee can perform the essential functions of his/her job with a job coach.  As seen by the facts in this case, as well as others like it across the country in recent years, it is possible the EEOC (or a court) will find a request for a job coach to have been a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA if a job coach will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job and it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.

About the Author: Lindsay E. Nadeau

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