Strong Protections Still Exist for Disabled Employees in the Federal Workplace

The federal government strives to be a model employer for disabled employees. The author says Reasonable Accommodation is one area where it excels.

Did you know that the federal government prides itself on being the “model employer” when it comes to protecting and asserting the rights of disabled federal employees? In fact, neatly embedded right smack in the middle of the definitions of the federal statute drafted to protect its employees with disabilities (the Rehabilitation Act 29 CFR 1614.203) lies that all famous statement that the Federal Government aims to be “America’s Model Employer.”

It cannot get any clearer than Section 10(c):

(c) Model employer. The Federal Government shall be a model employer of individuals with disabilities. Agencies shall give full consideration to the hiring, advancement, and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities in the federal workforce. Agencies shall also take affirmative action to promote the recruitment, hiring, and advancement of qualified individuals with disabilities, with the goal of eliminating under-representation of individuals with disabilities in the federal workforce.

Well, you may want to sit down for this, because believe it or not, the reality is that even in our present climate of severely diminished federal employee rights, the Federal Government still does a great job of hiring and protecting its disabled employees. 

Reasonable Accommodation

There is no greater example of this protection then a disabled employee’s entitlement to a Reasonable Accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

All disabled federal employees who are “Qualified” to do their job are entitled to any “Reasonable Accommodation” that will allow them to do the “Essential Functions” of his or her job. As long as you are considered a disabled employee under the law, the Agency must accommodate you unless they can show that the accommodation requested presents an “Undue Hardship.”

To be clear, it is very difficult for the federal government (the 3rd largest employer in the world) to show that the cost of any specific reasonable accommodation would limit its ability to provide this accommodation.

As an example, I once represented an employee who worked for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services who suffered from epilepsy. His seizures were occasionally triggered by the flickering fluorescent lights that he was required to work under on a daily basis and at the very least he suffered migraines from the lighting.

This employee requested to be relocated as an accommodation, but the Agency ignored his requests and argued it would be physically impossible to accommodate him in his present workspace.

Ultimately, the Agency was forced to accommodate him by building him his own private office in his existing work environment where he could control the lighting. In that case, the cost of the office was over $15,000, yet the Administrative Judge still ordered the Agency to build and provide his unique space.

Ultimately, the client was fully accommodated, and he has been able to provide the government with excellent service for many years. 

Other Examples of Accommodations

Other common examples of accommodations that employees have requested that might be helpful to consider are telework (a few days a week and sometimes all week), an interpreter, speech recognition software, two computer screens, an ergonomic desk… In fact, anything that is not an undue hardship on the Agency and not a “personal use” item can be requested and must be provided, or the employee can file a discrimination lawsuit.

With federal government protections presently at a low point it is nice to know that these essential protections exist and are available to allow disabled federal employees to do their jobs and to continue the Federal Government’s role as a “Model employer!”

About the Author

Eric Pines is a partner at Pines Federal Employment Attorneys, a nationwide federal sector law firm, and Pines and Goldenzweig, a Texas personal injury firm. He has more than 20 years of experience advocating for Feds and he focuses on assisting disabled federal employees in need of reasonable accommodation and acquiring OPM Federal Disability Retirement benefits.