Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - Guidelines for Identifying Essential Functions

The following information is an excerpt from the Technical Assistance Manual on the Employment Provisions (Title I) of the Americans With Disabilities Act (pages II-12–II-22) published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  You can order a complete copy of the manual, as well as other EEOC publications and materials, at the EEOC web site.

 

2.3 (a)  Identifying the Essential Functions of a Job

Sometimes it is necessary to identify the essential functions of a job in order to know whether an individual with a disability is "qualified" to do the job. The regulations provide guidance on identifying the essential functions of the job. The first consideration is whether employees in the position actually are required to perform the function.

For example: A job announcement or job description for a secretary or receptionist may state that typing is a function of the job. If, in fact, the employer has never or seldom required an employee in that position to type, this could not be considered an essential function.

If a person holding a job does perform a function, the next consideration is whether removing that function would fundamentally change the job.

 

The regulations list several reasons why a function could be considered essential:

 

1. The position exists to perform the function.

For example:

  • A person is hired to proofread documents. The ability to proofread accurately is an essential function, because this is the reason that this position exists.
  • A company advertises a position for a "floating" supervisor to substitute when regular supervisors on the day, night, and graveyard shifts are absent. The only reason this position exists is to have someone who can work on any of the three shifts in place of an absent supervisor.  Therefore, the ability to work at any time of day is an essential function of the job.

2. There are a limited number of other employees available to perform the function, or among whom the function can be distributed.

 

This may be a factor because there are only a few other employees, or because of fluctuating demands of a business operation.

For example: It may be an essential function for a file clerk to answer the telephone if there are only three employees in a very busy office and each employee has to perform many different tasks. Or, a company with a large workforce may have periods of very heavy labor-intensive activity alternating with less active periods. The heavy work flow during peak periods may make performance of each function essential, and limit an employer's flexibility to reassign a particular function.

3. A function is highly specialized, and the person in the position is hired for special expertise or ability to perform it.

For example: A company wishes to expand its business with Japan. For a new sales position, in addition to sales experience, it requires a person who can communicate fluently in the Japanese language. Fluent communication in the Japanese language is an essential function of the job.

The regulation also lists several types of evidence to be considered in determining whether a function is essential. This list is not all-inclusive, and factors not on the list may be equally important as evidence. Evidence to be considered includes:

 

a. The employer's judgment

 

An employer's judgment as to which functions are essential is important evidence. However, the legislative history of the ADA indicates that Congress did not intend that this should be the only evidence, or that it should be the prevailing evidence. Rather, the employer's judgment is a factor to be considered along with other relevant evidence.

 

However, the consideration of various kinds of evidence to determine which functions are essential does not mean that an employer will be second-guessed on production standards, setting the quality or quantity of work that must be performed by a person holding a job, or be required to set lower standards for the job.

For example: If an employer requires its typists to be able to accurately type 75 words per minute, the employer is not required to show that such speed and accuracy are "essential" to a job or that less accuracy or speed would not be adequate. Similarly, if a hotel requires its housekeepers to thoroughly clean 16 rooms per day, it does not have to justify this standard as "essential." However, in each case, if a person with a disability is disqualified by such a standard, the employer should be prepared to show that it does in fact require employees to perform at this level, that these are not merely paper requirements and that the standard was not established for a discriminatory reason.

b. A written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for a job

 

The ADA does not require an employer to develop or maintain job descriptions. A written job description that is prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for a job will be considered as evidence along with other relevant factors. However, the job description will not be given greater weight than other relevant evidence.

 

A written job description may state that an employee performs a certain essential function. The job description will be evidence that the function is essential, but if individuals currently performing the job do not in fact perform this function, or perform it very infrequently, a review of the actual work performed will be more relevant evidence than the job description.

 

If an employer uses written job descriptions, the ADA does not require that they be limited to a description of essential functions or that "essential functions" be identified. However, if an employer wishes to use a job description as evidence of essential functions, it should in some way identify those functions that the employer believes to be important in accomplishing the purpose of the job.

 

If an employer uses written job descriptions, they should be reviewed to be sure that they accurately reflect the actual functions of the current job. Job descriptions written years ago frequently are inaccurate.

For example: A written job description may state that an employee reads temperature and pressure gauges and adjusts machine controls to reflect these readings. The job description will be evidence that these functions are essential. However, if this job description is not up-to-date, and in fact temperature and pressure are now determined automatically, the machine is controlled by a computer and the current employee does not perform the stated functions or does so very infrequently, a review of actual work performed will be more relevant evidence of what the job requires.

In identifying an essential function to determine if an individual with a disability is qualified, the employer should focus on the purpose of the function and the result to be accomplished, rather than the manner in which the function presently is performed.  An individual with a disability may be qualified to perform the function if an accommodation would enable this person to perform the job in a different way, and the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship. Although it may be essential that a function be performed, frequently it is not essential that it be performed in a particular way.

For example:  In a job requiring use of a computer, the essential function is the ability to access, input, and retrieve information from the computer. It is not "essential" that a person in this job enter information manually, or visually read the information on the computer screen. Adaptive devices or computer software can often enable a person without arms or a person with impaired vision to perform the essential functions of the job.

Similarly, an essential function of a job on a loading dock may be to move heavy packages from the dock to a storage room, rather than to lift and carry packages from the dock to the storage room.

 

[See also discussion of Job Analysis and Essential Functions of a Job, in section 2.3(b)]

 

If the employer intends to use a job description as evidence of essential functions, the job description must be prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job; a job description prepared after an alleged discriminatory action will not be considered as evidence.

 

c. The amount of time spent performing the function

For example: If an employee spends most of the time or a majority of the time operating one machine, this would be evidence that operating this machine was an essential function.

d. The consequences of not requiring a person in this job to perform a function

 

Sometimes a function that is performed infrequently may be essential because there will be serious consequences if it is not performed.

For example:

  • An airline pilot spends only a few minutes of a flight landing a plane, but landing the plane is an essential function because of the very serious consequences if the pilot could not perform this function.
  • A firefighter may only occasionally have to carry a heavy person from a burning building, but being able to perform this function would be essential to the firefighter's job.
  • A clerical worker may spend only a few minutes a day answering the telephones, but this could be an essential function if no one else is available to answer the phones at that time, and business calls would go unanswered.

e. The terms of a collective bargaining agreement

 

Where a collective bargaining agreement lists duties to be performed in particular jobs, the terms of the agreement may provide evidence of essential functions. However, like a position description, the agreement would be considered along with other evidence, such as the actual duties performed by people in these jobs.

 

f. Work experience of people who have performed a job in the past and work experience of people who currently perform similar jobs

 

The work experience of previous employees in a job and the experience of current employees in similar jobs provide pragmatic evidence of actual duties performed. The employer should consult such employees and observe their work operations to identify essential job functions, since the tasks actually performed provide significant evidence of these functions.

 

g. Other relevant factors

 

The nature of the work operation and the employer's organizational structure may be factors in determining whether a function is essential.

For example:

  • A particular manufacturing facility receives large orders for its product intermittently. These orders must be filled under very tight deadlines. To meet these deadlines, it is necessary that each production worker be able to perform a variety of different tasks with different requirements.  All of these tasks are essential functions for a production worker at that facility. However, another facility that receives orders on a continuous basis finds it most efficient to organize an assembly line process, in which each production worker repeatedly performs one major task. At this facility, this single task may be the only essential function of the production worker's job.
  • An employer may structure production operations to be carried out by a "team" of workers. Each worker performs a different function, but every worker is required, on a rotating basis, to perform each different function. In this situation, all the functions may be considered to be essential for the job, rather than the function that any one worker performs at a particular time.

Changing Essential Job Functions

 

The ADA does not limit an employer's ability to establish or change the content, nature, or functions of a job. It is the employer's province to establish what a job is and what functions are required to perform it. The ADA simply requires that an individual with a disability’s qualifications for a job are evaluated in relation to its essential functions.

For example: A grocery store may have two different jobs at the checkout stand, one titled, "checkout clerk" and the other "bagger." The essential functions of the checkout clerk are entering the price for each item into a cash register, receiving money, making change, and passing items to the bagger. The essential functions of the bagging job are putting items into bags, giving the bags to the customer directly or placing them in grocery carts.

 

For legitimate business reasons, the store management decides to combine the two jobs in a new job called "checker-bagger." In the new job, each employee will have to perform the essential functions of both former jobs. Each employee now must enter prices in a new, faster computer-scanner, put the items in bags, give the bags to the customer or place them in carts. The employee holding this job would have to perform all of these functions. There may be some aspects of each function, however, that are not “essential” to the job, or some possible modification in the way these functions are performed, that would enable a person employed as a “checker” whose disability prevented performance of all the bagging operations to do the new job.

 

For example: If the checker's disability made it impossible to lift any item over one pound, s/he might not be qualified to perform the essential bagging functions of the new job. But if the disability only precluded lifting items of more than 20 pounds, it might be possible for this person to perform the bagging functions, except for the relatively few instances when items or loaded bags weigh more than 20 pounds. If other employees are available who could help this individual with the few heavy items, perhaps in exchange for some incidental functions that they perform, or if this employee could keep filled bags loads under 20 pounds, then bagging loads over 20 pounds would not be an essential function of the new job.

2.3(b) Job Analysis and the “Essential Functions” of a Job

 

The ADA does not require that an employer conduct a job analysis or any particular form of job analysis to identify the essential functions of a job. The information provided by a job analysis may or may not be helpful in properly identifying essential job functions, depending on how it is conducted.

 

The term “job analysis” generally is used to describe a formal process in which information about a specific job or occupation is collected and analyzed. Formal job analysis may be conducted by a number of different methods. These methods obtain different kinds of information that is used for different purposes. Some of these methods will not provide information sufficient to determine if an individual with a disability is qualified to perform "essential" job functions.

For example: One kind of formal job analysis looks at specific job tasks and classifies jobs according to how these tasks deal with data, people, and objects. This type of job analysis is used to set wage rates for various jobs; however, it may not be adequate to identify the essential functions of a particular job, as required by the ADA. Another kind of job analysis looks at the kinds of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to perform a job. This type of job analysis is used to develop selection criteria for various jobs. The information from this type of analysis sometimes helps to measure the importance of certain skills, knowledge, and abilities but it does not take into account the fact that people with disabilities often can perform essential functions using other skills and abilities.

Some job analysis methods ask current employees and their supervisors to rate the importance of general characteristics necessary to perform a job, such as “strength,” “endurance,” or “intelligence,” without linking these characteristics to specific job functions or specific tasks that are part of a function. Such general information may not identify, for example, whether upper body or lower body “strength” is required, or whether muscular endurance or cardiovascular “endurance” is needed to perform a particular job function. Such information, by itself, would not be sufficient to determine whether an individual who has particular limitations can perform an essential function with or without an accommodation.

 

As already stated, the ADA does not require a formal job analysis or any particular method of analysis to identify the essential functions of a job. A small employer may wish to conduct an informal analysis by observing and consulting with people who perform the job or have previously performed it and their supervisors. If possible, it is advisable to observe and consult with several workers under a range of conditions, to get a better idea of all job functions and the different ways they may be performed. Production records and workloads also may be relevant factors to consider.

 

To identify essential job functions under the ADA, a job analysis should focus on the purpose of the job and the importance of actual job functions in achieving this purpose. Evaluating "importance" may include consideration of the frequency with which a function is performed, the amount of time spent on the function, and the consequences if the function is not performed. The analysis may include information on the work environment (such as unusual heat, cold, humidity, dust, toxic substances, or stress factors). The job analysis may contain information on the manner in which a job currently is performed, but should not conclude that ability to perform the job in that manner is an essential function, unless there is no other way to perform the function without causing undue

hardship. A job analysis will be most helpful for purposes of the ADA if it focuses on the results or outcome of a function, not solely on the way it customarily is performed.

For example:

  • An essential function of a computer programmer job might be described as "ability to develop programs that accomplish necessary objectives," rather than "ability to manually write programs." Although a person currently performing the job may write these programs by hand, that is not the essential function, because programs can be developed directly on the computer.
  • If a job requires mastery of information contained in technical manuals, this essential function would be "ability to learn technical material," rather than "ability to read technical manuals." People with visual and other reading impairments could perform this function using other means, such as audiotapes.
  • A job that requires objects to be moved from one place to another should state this essential function. The analysis may note that the person in the job "lifts 50 pound cartons to a height of 3 or 4 feet and loads them into truck-trailers 5 hours daily," but should not identify the "ability to manually lift and load 50 pound cartons" as an essential function unless this is the only method by which the function can be performed without causing an undue hardship.

 

A job analysis that is focused on outcomes or results also will be helpful in establishing appropriate qualification standards, developing job descriptions, conducting interviews, and selecting people in accordance with ADA requirements. It will be particularly useful in helping to identify accommodations that will enable an individual with specific functional abilities and limitations to perform the job.

 

2.3(c) Perform Essential Functions "With or Without Reasonable Accommodation"

 

Many individuals with disabilities are qualified to perform the essential functions of jobs without need of any accommodation. However, if an individual with a disability who is otherwise qualified cannot perform one or more essential job functions because of his or her disability, the employer, in assessing whether the person is qualified to do the job, must consider whether there are modifications or adjustments that would enable the person to perform these functions. Such modifications or adjustments are called “reasonable accommodations.”

 

Reasonable accommodation is a key nondiscrimination requirement under the ADA.  An employer must first consider reasonable accommodation in determining whether an individual with a disability is qualified; reasonable accommodation also must be considered when making many other employment decisions regarding people with disabilities.