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Can an Employer Ask for Proof of Disability in California?

Emanuel Shirazi

Navigating the complex world of disability law and workplace rights in California can be challenging for employers and employees. With legal provisions, regulations, and guidelines to follow, all parties involved must stay informed and understand their rights and responsibilities.

One question that often arises is whether an employer can ask for proof of disability. This issue might surface when an employee requests accommodations or when an employer needs to ensure they are providing a safe and inclusive work environment. Understanding when and under what circumstances an employer can legally request proof of disability is crucial to avoid discrimination and foster a supportive workplace for individuals with disabilities.

Understanding California’s Disability Laws

To address the central question effectively, it’s essential to grasp the legal framework that governs disability rights and workplace accommodations in California. Two primary pieces of legislation form the backbone of these protections and regulations:

  1. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). A federal law enacted in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability across various aspects of life, including employment, public services, and public accommodations. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees. It requires them to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities, ensuring equal opportunity and access to jobs, promotions, and benefits.
  2. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). A state law that expands upon the ADA, the FEHA covers employers with as few as five employees, thus broadening the scope of businesses required to adhere to disability rights and regulations. The FEHA provides more extensive protection for individuals with disabilities, and it also mandates reasonable accommodations, ensuring employees have the support they need to perform their jobs effectively.

What Constitutes a “Disability”?

Defining “disability” is critical to understanding the protections and rights provided by the ADA and the FEHA. According to both these pieces of legislation, a disability is a physical or mental impairment significantly limiting one or more major life activities. Major life activities encompass various daily activities and tasks that individuals usually perform. These activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, working, concentrating, communicating, reading, and performing manual tasks.

When Can an Employer Ask for Proof of Disability?

Generally, employers should avoid inquiring about an employee’s disability status. However, in specific situations, an employer may be legally allowed to ask for proof of disability. These circumstances include:

  • When an employee requests reasonable accommodations. If an employee discloses their disability and requests reasonable accommodations, an employer may ask for documentation to support the request. This documentation should be limited to verifying the existence of a disability and the need for accommodations.
  • When the disability is not obvious. If an employee’s disability is not apparent, an employer may request documentation to confirm the presence of a disability and to understand the functional limitations that necessitate accommodations.
  • During the hiring process, after a job offer. Employers should not inquire about disabilities or request documentation during the initial hiring process. However, once a conditional job offer has been extended, an employer may ask about the applicant’s ability to perform essential job functions and, if necessary, request documentation of a disability that may require accommodations.

What Kind of Documentation Can an Employer Request?

When requesting documentation, employers must exercise caution, ensuring they respect the employee’s privacy and adhere to relevant laws and regulations. In general, an employer may ask for limited information to verify the employee’s disability and understand the necessary accommodations. Such information can include:

  • Verification of the disability from a qualified medical professional. This can include a doctor, psychologist, rehabilitation counselor, or another healthcare provider familiar with the employee’s condition. The documentation the medical professional provides should confirm the existence of a disability, describe the functional limitations that necessitate accommodations, and indicate the expected duration of the need for accommodations, if applicable.
  • A description of the accommodations needed. This information, as recommended by the medical professional, should outline the specific adjustments, modifications, or supports that the employee requires to perform their job duties effectively. The description should be clear and detailed enough for the employer to understand how the accommodations will address the employee’s functional limitations.

FAQs About Asking For Proof of Disability in CA

Do You Have to Disclose a Disability to Employers in California?

In California, disclosing a disability to employers is not a requirement, and the decision to do so ultimately rests with the employee.

Can a Potential Employer Ask If You Have a Disability?

During the hiring process, potential employers are generally prohibited from asking about an applicant’s disability. This is to prevent discrimination based on disability. However, an employer may ask about the applicant’s ability to perform the job’s essential functions, with or without accommodations. After extending a conditional job offer, an employer may inquire about the need for accommodations, but they must not discriminate based on the applicant’s disability.

Can Employers Request Medical Documentation to Prove Disability and Need for Accommodation When It Is Not Obvious?

Yes, when an employee requests reasonable accommodations for a non-apparent disability, an employer may ask for documentation to confirm the existence of a disability (not the details of the medical condition) and the need for accommodations. This documentation should come from a qualified medical professional and describe the functional limitations that necessitate the accommodations. Employers should not request an employee’s entire medical history or records, as this would likely violate privacy laws and regulations.

Can a Business Ask a Customer What Their Disability Is?

In general, businesses should avoid asking customers about their disabilities. However, if a customer requests an accommodation or a service related to their disability, a company may ask limited questions to understand the individual’s needs better and provide appropriate assistance. Businesses should be sensitive and respectful when inquiring about a customer’s disability and should prioritize protecting the individual’s privacy and dignity.

Your Workplace Disability Attorneys in California

At Shirazi Law Firm, PC, we provide experienced guidance on workplace disability law and offer a variety of services to help employees understand their rights. To discuss your case, contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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