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EEOC Discusses Qualification Standards vs. Essential Functions

When hiring disabled employees, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to determine whether an applicant or employee is “qualified” to perform the position. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently stated that it defines “qualified” in two parts. First, the employee must meet the standards for skills, education, experience and the like for the position. Second, the employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.
The EEOC breaks down the difference between qualification standards and essential functions in its regulations. Qualification standards are “personal professional attributes including the skill, experience, education, medical, physical, safety, and other requirements.” Essential functions are intended to be what an employee is actually required to do on the job, such as particular lifting or standing. Under the EEOC’s definition, a requirement that an applicant be able to lift 30 pounds should be classified as a qualification standard and not an essential function.
The EEOC warned employers to be careful in creating those standards because there will be people who can perform the essential functions of a position notwithstanding their disability and employers are required to conduct an individualized assessment of both applicants and employees. A recent case used as an example was a postal worker with a lifting restriction who was denied a position because the employer asserted that he had to be able to lift 70 pounds. In fact, an EEOC investigation revealed that those in the position only had to lift 35 pounds, thus the qualification standard failed because it was not job-related and it was inaccurate.