February 6, 2023

Volume XIII, Number 37

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February 03, 2023

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Manufacturers Face Unique Problems in Accommodating Assembly Line Workers With Disabilities

As manufacturers rebound from the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and begin putting more employees back to work, they should be prepared for a corresponding increase in requests for accommodation from assembly line workers.

These requests can create unique challenges in manufacturing plants due to the inherently physical nature of the work, but there are options and strategies for employers to consider.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must provide reasonable accommodations to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs. However, what is reasonable for one employer may not be reasonable for another. In no setting is this more apparent than on the assembly line.

By its very nature, the assembly line is often physical, requiring employees to stand or sit for long periods, engage in repetitive motions, use tools, and manipulate parts of varying weights and sizes. In many situations, these requirements cannot be easily adjusted without altering the fundamental nature of the job and causing a ripple effect on the duties of the other workers on the assembly line. Manufacturers, like other employers, do not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it imposes an “undue hardship.”

Indeed, courts have generally affirmed that the duty to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee does not require a manufacturer to eliminate essential functions of the employee’s job, create a new job, dilute uniformly enforced productivity standards, or displace other existing employees.

What exactly might be a reasonable accommodation for an assembly line worker?

In some circumstances, assistive technologies or making physical changes to the work environment may enable the worker to carry out the essential functions of their job.

Assistive technologies are wide-ranging and can include a steering wheel spinner knob or ball grip on a forklift or a stress mat or stool for an employee to use to take pressure off their feet at their workstation, depending on the specific task. The viability and reasonableness of these options will depend on the unique facts and circumstances at play. For instance, the assistive technology required for a particular assembly line worker to do a specific task might carry a high price tag, or the layout of the plant might not allow for the physical changes the worker would require.

Some employees might need additional breaks in the workday in order to tend to their condition by taking medication, eating, and so on.

If the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job, and there is no reasonable accommodation for that position, then a transfer to a different position that fits the employee’s skill set and abilities can be considered.

Temporary reassignment to a light duty position while the employee continues to recover or explores or undergoes other treatments to enable the employee to return to their prior job could be another option. However, traditional light duty assignments that exist in other industries (like putting an employee behind a desk or having them answer the phones) usually are not options in a manufacturing plant. Rather, in manufacturing, light duty work might include basic cleaning, general labor, or miscellaneous assignments, if such jobs exist in the facility. However, there may be a limited number of such jobs, especially in small facilities.

Moreover, even if light duty or less physically demanding positions exist on the assembly line, a manufacturer running a unionized facility must consider whether any job reassignments comply with the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.

Temporary assignments to less physically demanding jobs on the assembly line, if any exist, may provide the answer in some cases. The position would have to comply with the employee’s medical restrictions in order to be a viable option, and it should be made clear to the employee that the position is only being offered on a temporary basis. Often, a temporary assignment such as this will not violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Manufacturers will need to check the terms of their own collective bargaining agreements to be sure.

When changes to the job or environment, light duty assignments, and temporary assignments are not available on the assembly line, or if the disabled employee’s medical restrictions do not allow them to perform the available jobs, leave also may be an option. If an employee is eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the employee could request leave even if there are accommodations that would allow the employee to continue working. If leave under the FMLA has been exhausted or the employee is not eligible for FMLA, a manufacturer can consider offering an unpaid leave of absence of limited duration as a reasonable accommodation. How long a leave of absence is long enough depends on the unique circumstances of each situation and the law controlling the jurisdiction where the employee works.

No matter which options are considered when attempting to accommodate an assembly line worker, an evaluation and determination of whether a potential accommodation is reasonable and whether it creates an undue hardship on the manufacturer must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2023National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 130

About this Author

James M Stone Labor & Employment Attorney Jackson Lewis Cleveland, OH

James M. Stone is a principal of the Cleveland, Ohio, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. From the opening of the office in 2006 until early 2020, Jim served as office managing principal in Cleveland, when he stepped down to focus on his busy practice and increased task force activities within practice groups and industry teams.

With more than 25 years of experience in labor and employment law, he has conducted more than 120 negotiations with unions, represented companies in hundreds of employment discrimination, wrongful discharge, and other claims in court and...

Sheri Giger, Jackson Lewis, human resource policy attorney, employment labor development lawyer,

Sheri L. Giger is a Principal in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Her practice focuses on preventive human resource policy development, training and counseling and advice.

Ms. Giger also works on policy/handbook development, particularly for multi-state issues and compliance. She also works with compliance issues under the American with Disabilities Act, as amended, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, as amended. Ms. Giger counsels and conducts extensive training on topics such as anti-harassment...

Patricia Anderson Pryor, Class Action, Litigator
Principal and Office Litigation Manager

Patricia Anderson Pryor is a Shareholder in the Cincinnati, Ohio office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Ms. Pryor is an experienced litigator in both state and federal courts, representing and defending employers in nearly every form of employment litigation, including class actions.

She represents and advises employers in federal and state administrative proceedings, in all forms of dispute resolution, including mediation and arbitration, and in managing all aspects of the employment relationship. She has represented...

Katharine Weber, JacksonLewis Law Firm, Labor and Employment Attorney

Ms. Weber has experience litigating wrongful discharge cases; managing discrimination cases; negotiating collective bargaining agreements; representing employers before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal, Ohio and Kentucky agencies; advising management on employment relations; drafting employee handbooks; and negotiating severance agreements.

Ms. Weber regularly advises clients on wage and hour issues. Over the past five years she has served as lead counsel on various wage and hour class and...

Andrew D. Kinghorn Associate Jackson Lewis P.C.

Andrew D. Kinghorn is an associate in the St. Louis, Missouri office of Jackson Lewis P.C. His practice is dedicated to helping employers prevent and resolve workplace disputes with their employees.

Andrew partners with his clients to understand and help them achieve their business objectives while reducing risk and minimizing legal costs. This business-oriented approach has enabled him to serve as a trusted advisor to clients of all sizes. Andrew regularly provides workplace training, conducts investigations, and counsels...