In a recent decision, the California Supreme Court found that employers are required to provide certain workers with a stool or chair to sit on during the workday. The class-action case was brought by employees of the drugstore-chain CVS and other retailers who argued that the company improperly denied them seats to use throughout the workday. CVS and the other retailers argued that the employees (some of them cashiers) were also required to perform physical tasks during the day that required them to stand, such as stocking shelves, and so the chain was not required to provide seats or allow employees to sit. The California Supreme Court disagreed, however, and found that under state law the “totality of the circumstances” indicated there would be no substantial interference in the employee’s work if they were permitted to sit while they were at their cash registers or required to remain stationary at another location for a period of time.
The Principle of “Reasonable Accommodations”
Federal and state labor laws require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to assist their workers in performing their jobs if a disability or impairment makes it difficult for the employee to perform the job tasks absent the accommodation. (The workers were also asking for an accommodation when they requested seats or stools to use throughout the day). Once an accommodation is requested, the employer must either provide the accommodation that is requested or another reasonable alternative that addresses the worker’s concern. If the employer chooses not to provide any accommodation, then in any subsequent lawsuit the burden is on the employer to provide evidence that the requested accommodation was unreasonable and there was no other accommodation that could be made that would not be unduly burdensome for the employer.
For example, suppose that a cashier who is pregnant has difficulty standing all day (similar to one plaintiff in the class-action suit). The worker requests that her boss provide her with a stool or seat to use throughout the day as necessary. It is unlikely that providing such a stool or seat would be a terrible expense for the employer: in other words, such a request is reasonable on its face. If the employer decides not to provide a stool for the worker, then the worker may be able to bring legal action against the employer for failing to provide the requested accommodation. In such an action, the burden would be on the employer to show why providing a stool or seat for the worker would be “unreasonable”.
(Some of the arguments against stools or seats used by the defendant-employers in the class-action case included the argument that seated employees appeared less attentive and professional. Such concerns were brushed aside and not considered legitimate reasons for denying the seat.)
When a Requested Accommodation is Not Reasonable
However, just because an employee asks for an unreasonable accommodation does not mean that an employer can disregard the request entirely. If the requested accommodation is unreasonable, an employer needs to make efforts to find a more suitable and reasonable accommodation. Suppose the pregnant worker demands a $600 ergonomic chair. Such a chair may represent a significant expense for the business. Instead of simply disregarding her request, the business must (in all likelihood) offer a less-expensive chair or stool for her to use. In a legal proceeding based upon these facts, the employer would need to show why the requested chair was unreasonable and why the accommodation the employer did offer was reasonable. If it is able to do so, the employer will prevail. See the LA times article on the CA Supreme Court ruling.