Under the ADA, employees are protected from disability discrimination in the workplace. However, employers don’t have to hire an employee who can’t do the job, regardless of whether or not the employee has a disability. Essential job functions are used to determine which employees are protected by the ADA and which are not. An employee who is otherwise qualified (for example, because the employee has the degrees, license, and experience required for the position) is protected from disability discrimination if he or she can perform the essential job functions. It doesn’t matter if the employee requires an accommodation from the employer to do so: As long as the employee can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, the employee is protected from discrimination by the ADA.
This is why the labeling of job functions as “essential” or “nonessential” is so important. If a function is truly essential, and an applicant or employee cannot perform it even with a reasonable accommodation, then that person is not qualified for the job as a legal matter. The person cannot bring a disability discrimination lawsuit against the employer, even if the person couldn’t perform the essential job functions because of a disability. On the other hand, if a function is not truly essential, the employer cannot exclude a person with a disability from consideration for the position just because that person can’t perform the function. Legally, it may not play a role in the employer’s decision-making process.
Which Job Duties Are Essential?
As the name suggests, essential job functions are the fundamental, not marginal, duties of a job. A job duty is an essential function if any of the following is true:
- The reason the job exists is to perform that function. For example, an essential function of a pilot is to fly planes.
- Only a few employees can perform the function.
- The function is so highly specialized that the employer hires people into the position specifically because of their expertise in performing that function.
In determining whether a job function is essential, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency that enforces the ADA and other discrimination laws) looks at these factors:
- The employer’s assessment of which functions are essential, as demonstrated by job descriptions written before the employer posts or advertises for the position whether the position exists to perform that function (if the entire job consists of one function, such as loading and unloading boxes or entering information into a database, then than function is essential)
- The experience of employees who actually hold that position
- The time spent performing the function
- The consequences of not performing the function
- Whether other employees are available to perform the function, and
- The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.
- The weight each factor receives will depend on the facts. For example, a security guard may rarely (if ever) have to use a weapon. However, the position exists to guard valuables, and a security guard who was unable to use a weapon when one was required would be at great risk