Central Accommodation Funds Pave the Way

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR August 7, 2008

Acco​mmodations for employees with disabilities generally don’t cost much, if anything. But the fear that workers with disabilities may be more expensive to employ may concern hiring managers with tight budgets. A central accommodation fund is one way to remove those barriers, experts say.

Lewis J. Benavides, SPHR, vice president for human resources at Texas Woman’s University (TWU), says he’s “really amazed” at how little TWU has spent on accommodations over the six years he’s managed the university’s central accommodation fund. The approximately $30,000 spent during that time period may seem like a lot when viewed as a lump sum, but it works out to just a couple of dollars per employee per year when compared to the total number of employees on the university’s payroll.

Benavides, who is also a member of SHRM’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel, says TWU sets aside $5,000 a year for accommodations, but that he has access to a catastrophic fund if more money is needed.

The process—and the fund—is administered by HR, and covers accommodations which meet the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as many that don’t. “In reality, about 50 percent [of accommodation requests] are not legally required under the ADA because they don’t meet the definition,” Benavides says. “But we provide them anyway.”

A Ballpark Figure

No complicated formula was used to set the budget for the central accommodation fund at SunTrust Bank, according to Katherine McCary, the bank’s vice president of accessing community talent, disability resource center. “We just gave it a ballpark figure … if the need increases we will increase the budget,” she adds. So far that has not been the case.

The average cost per SunTrust employee to maintain the fund is less than $3 a year, McCary says.

That’s because most accommodations don’t cost any money, she notes. They simply involve changing a schedule or moving a desk. But when there is a cost, she’s available to pay the bill so it doesn’t impact a particular department’s budget.

Working It Out

Unlike some centralized accommodation processes, McCary’s role is only to help identify options that meet a particular need and provide funding. “The manager and employee work out what’s needed,” she says, with the assistance of human resources. “I don’t question. I don’t ask for medical confirmation. It’s a paperless, pain free process,” she says.

SunTrust provides managers with another way to streamline the accommodation process, what McCary calls a “library of accommodations”; readily available equipment, such as keyboards, which can be borrowed or kept by those who need them.

Low Cost, High Impact
Nearly half (46 percent) of accommodations provided by employers cost absolutely nothing, according to a fact sheet on accommodations published by the Job Accommodation Network. Another 45 percent result in a one-time cost of $500 or less.

Accommodations as Investments

Some employers treat accommodations as an investment in employee productivity.

“We invest heavily in attracting the right people and developing the right people.It's a logical business decision to us to invest in whatever is needed to get the job done,” says Lori Golden, Access Abilities Leader at Ernst & Young.

Cost is no barrier, according to Golden. “Our business unit leaders recognize that this is a productivity issue. Our people are the way we create value,” she says.

“We have deaf employees who get transcripts of their voicemail messages. We have several blind employees who have full-time readers,” Golden says. “We have others who use screen reading software and get ongoing technical support.”

“As more and more people learn about our efforts and understand that the firm is anxious to support them, they're coming forward with requests,” Golden adds. “But we still haven't encountered real push-back around spending.”

Budget Realities

The practicality of a central accommodation fund will ultimately depend on the budget practices and constraints faced by a particular organization.

HR practitioners need to consider the business practices within their respective organizations before recommending a centralized or decentralized approach to accommodations. “The manner in which the finances of an organization are structured impacts the way such funds are expended,” says Joseph P. Jackson, JD, SPHR, an expert in public sector EEO issues and member of SHRM’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel.

“A challenge with a centrally managed fund is the difficulty of anticipating the needed accommodations of the workforce from year to year,” Jackson says. “While it's laudable whenever an employer reaches out to the disabled community and makes targeted recruitment efforts, it is just as likely that an existing employee will find it necessary to request an accommodation at some point during the employment relationship,” he says. “What does an employer say to such a request when the funds in the centrally managed account are depleted?”

“Whether the replenishment of the account is transacted once a year or as the need arises, the more crucial question is to ensure that a central decision-maker has responsibility for signing off on (approving/rejecting) the requested accommodation rather than controlling the funds from a central account,” Jackson says.

Getting Started

Jackson suggests employers establish a disabilities board chaired by the individual responsible for assessing and implementing accommodations, and to include representatives from staffing, safety, facilities, logistics, IT and finance. “This allows for a corporate discussion regarding the impact and necessity of the requested accommodation and the cost, schedule and impact of implementation,” he says. “If funds need to be transferred from one account to another at the time of implementation, or at various stages in the project, the board meetings allow for facilitation of that effort.”

Whether a company chooses to establish a central fund or not, McCary offers an important bit of advice: “Ask the employee what they need.” She says she hears countless stories of employers who take the initiative to seek out and obtain what they believe is the best tool or solution for the employee and later learn that a much simpler—and cheaper— option existed.

Benavides says an organization’s policy should set forth a specific process for requesting accommodations so everyone knows exactly what to do, where to go for help, and who is accountable for ensuring accommodations are provided in a timely manner.

One of the most important players in the process, he says, is the employee’s manager, who must talk to the employee to find out what is needed and then make sure that the accommodation actually provided meets their needs.

But with a clearly defined process and a centralized source of funding, managers have some reassurance, according to Benavides: “They know they are not alone.”

An Obstacle Removed

A central accommodation fund provides another benefit: to remove one possible obstacle hiring managers may have to hiring an applicant with a disability over an equally qualified able-bodied candidate. “It’s easier to accommodate a person you know,” McCary says. “It’s almost as if the idea of a central fund is enough to make it a level playing field,” she says. “Whether someone uses it or not, they know it’s there if they need it.”

McCary says a well-publicized central fund also makes it clear to current employees that it’s okay to ask for an accommodation which will help them perform better. “It sends a signal that it’s okay that you need this. That is even more important than the money.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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