Tips for Creating Multipurpose Accommodation Rooms for Employees

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP February 12, 2020
mother and baby

​There are times when employees may need private space at work. Perhaps a Muslim employee needs to pray, or a nursing mother needs to express breastmilk. Maybe a worker needs a quiet space to focus on mental health.

Employers with limited space may not be able to provide a separate room for each accommodation. So here are some ideas for creating a multipurpose room to accommodate various employee requests.

Know the Law

"There are so many accommodation laws," explained Devjani Mishra, an attorney with Littler in New York City. Employers should think about how these laws interact when they are balancing more than one request, she said. Employees may need religious accommodations, disability accommodations, private lactation space and more. 

"It comes down to being reasonable and respectful," Mishra said, noting that the goal should be to create a more inclusive workplace.

Sarina Saluja, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Los Angeles, said employers should make it clear to workers that if a room is used for more than one purpose, then the workers need to be mindful of the potential needs of others. Employers also need to ensure that the room meets any legal requirements for the applicable accommodation request.

Competing Requests

So what if more than one worker needs the space at a particular time? Talk with the employees, said Christine Bestor Townsend, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee. Find out what times the room might be needed and create a schedule so employees can see when the room is available. "If you are in an office environment, you can use an Outlook calendar that those who need the room can access," she suggested.

"Work with the employees to understand their needs," she added. Accommodations that require a completely private space—such as pumping—might take priority over accommodations that might not require complete privacy, she explained. For example, a Muslim employee who needs to pray and a new mother who needs to pump may both require a set schedule, but it may be possible to find a space that is not completely shielded from view to suit the Muslim employee's needs.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide a private space—other than a bathroom—that a breast-feeding employee may use. The requirements don't apply to employers that are not covered by the FLSA or to those that are covered but have fewer than 50 employees, if compliance with the provisions would impose an undue hardship.

Employers should note that some state and local laws cover smaller businesses and include additional requirements for the room's setup. States and cities are moving toward being very specific about the requirements, Mishra noted. For instance, employers in New York City must provide a private space free from intrusion that has an electrical outlet, a chair, and a surface on which to place a breast pump and other personal items. There must also be running water nearby, and the room has to be "in reasonable proximity" to the employee's work area and to a refrigerator that is suitable for breast milk storage.

California has similar requirements, and California law provides that lactation takes precedence over other uses of a multipurpose room during the time it is actually being used for lactation purposes.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the employers' responsibilities for providing new mothers with a place to breast-feed?]

"Other states may have different rules," Saluja said. "If an employer has space limitations, communication with the employees is key to figure out what times the room will be needed."

She recommended that employers review every accommodation request on a case-by-case basis, while keeping any legal requirements in mind.

Small businesses may face more space conflicts than larger ones with big campuses. If there is no unused space to dedicate as an accommodation room, then the employer, as an alternative, could give employees access to a space—other than a bathroom—that is normally used for other purposes, Saluja said. For example, a manager's office or a conference room that is free from intrusion and meets any other legal criteria might work.

Have a Conversation

"Dialogue with employees is key," Townsend said. "Find out what specifically they need. Follow up with the employee and ensure the accommodation is working."

Mishra noted that a solution that works for one person might not work for everyone. "Deal with one-offs when they come up." With flexible scheduling and remote work becoming the norm, there may be solutions available beyond providing office space, she said.



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