Not what he asked for, but unpaid leave of absence ruled to be appropriate ADA accommodation

Stock photo of a UPS delivery driver making his rounds in an American city.

When an employee suffering from a health condition comes to you with a proposed job modification to accommodate their condition, by all means consider the accommodation they have requested. But remember: an employer can offer a different accommodation that addresses the employee’s health condition but does not pose the operational challenges that would occur with the employee’s requested accommodation. That’s the route UPS took with one of its delivery drivers.

A delivery driver’s pain

As a package delivery driver for United Parcel Service, Jay Hannah worked a route that required him to drive a truck that had the capacity to carry 600 cubic feet of packages.

After the onset of pain to his lower back, hip and buttocks, Hannah was diagnosed as suffering from hip bursitis. The delivery truck’s stiff suspension aggravated his bursitis. UPS first tried to address the problem by providing Hannah with a better padded and more supportive driver seat; however, that measure only provided momentary relief. The driver missed some work, and his doctor diagnosed him with sacroiliitis. The doctor recommended he avoid prolonged sitting for a while and concluded Hannah was temporarily disabled.

At that point Hannah asked UPS to accommodate his health condition. Hannah proposed that he be provided a cargo van to service his delivery route because the van had a softer suspension, which would give him “an easier ride.” As an alternative, he asked that he be temporarily assigned to an “inside job” until his condition improved and he could resume driving his route.

Not the accommodation he requested

Hannah’s request to drive the smaller cargo van could not be accommodated.  The cargo capacity of the van was 40 to 50 percent less than that of his delivery truck, which meant that either UPS would have to assign part of Hannah’s route to another driver, or Hannah would need to make multiple trips to complete his route. Incidentally, provisions of UPS’ union contract prevented the partial assignment of the route and prohibited multiple trips to complete the route.

Temporary assignment to an inside job also was not an option, as there were no inside work vacancies for which Hannah was qualified. However, UPS told Hannah they would consider him for any future openings that became available for which he was qualified.

After determining neither of the accommodations Hannah requested were reasonable and feasible, UPS came up with a solution – one that was not requested or suggested by Hannah. UPS allowed Hannah to keep his job and take an indefinite leave without pay until he healed and was able to return to work. After several months, Hannah returned from his unpaid leave and resumed working on his route driving the assigned delivery truck.

Soon after returning to work, Hannah sued UPS, claiming his employer had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it did not provide him with either of the accommodations he requested and instead made him take unpaid leave.

Reasonable accommodations under the ADA

Employers are required to consider and offer reasonable accommodations for disabled employees that enable them to perform the essential functions of a job, so long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship upon the employer’s operations. Under the ADA, the employer has the “ultimate discretion” to choose among potential accommodations. In addition to job restructuring and schedule modification, the ADA specifically recognizes unpaid leave as a potential accommodation.

In this case before a federal appeals court, not only did UPS establish the fact that the 600 cubic foot truck was necessary to service Hannah’s delivery route, but Hannah never disputed the fact there were no inside job vacancies for which he was qualified.  Additionally, UPS demonstrated that the two accommodations Hannah requested would violate UPS’ union contract provisions. Under these circumstances, the court ruled the indefinite, unpaid leave UPS offered to Hannah was appropriate and lawful under the ADA.

Do your homework

More often than not, employees who ask for some sort of job modification due to a health condition will request a particular accommodation. While you should consider their requested accommodations, you also need to remember that you have the right to offer a different accommodation that is less impactful on your business. Be prepared to explain why the employee’s requested accommodation is unworkable and why the alternative accommodation you offered is reasonable and makes more sense.

  • Hannah v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 21-1647 (4th Cir. 7/10/23)