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Was reducing an employee’s hours for a fixed period reasonable adjustments?

29th November, 2013

Under Section 20(3) of the Equality Act 2010 an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled job applicants and employees where they would otherwise be placed at a substantial disadvantage.

Recent case law has raised the question; what amounts to reasonable adjustments?

In the case of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions v Higgins UKEAT/0579/12/DM it was held that reducing an employee’s hours for a fixed period of time was sufficient under the reasonable adjustments duty and as such the claimant had not been discriminated against.

Mr Higgins, an employee of JobCentre Plus (“JCP”) in Liverpool, had a long period of sickness absence following which his “Fit Note” recommended a phased return to work through different hours for three months. Mr Higgins suggested that the return be over six months but JCP’s response was the suggestion of a Part-time Medical Grounds Plan which would enable Mr Higgins to return to his normal hours over 13 weeks. Mr Higgins rejected this and refused to return to work unless the timeframe was extended. His request to extend the Plan was refused and Mr Higgins was dismissed. He subsequently made a claim to the Employment Tribunal on the grounds that JCP had failed to make reasonable adjustments.

At first instance, the Employment Tribunal held that by failing to consider Mr Higgins’ requested extension, JCP was in breach of its duty to make reasonable adjustments.

On appeal by JCP, it was held that the provision criteria or practice placing Mr Higgins at a substantial disadvantage was incorrectly identified as the requirement for him to work. It should have been the requirement for him to work his contracted hours. It was held that the onus is not on an employer to allow an extension of a Fit Note given that they are often presented with Fit Notes lasting a fixed duration, as Mr Higgins’ did. If an extension to a Fit Note is required, the employee must seek to receive this from their GP.

It is correct to say that if, on expiry of the Fit Note, the employee is still put at a disadvantage, the employer has an ongoing duty to make reasonable adjustments but this should be judged by the circumstances at that particular time and cannot be guaranteed in advance as Mr Higgins was effectively requesting.

For further information and advice on duties to make reasonable adjustments that you may owe and the importance of following correct procedures in relation to this, please contact Helen Watson on 01244 405575 or send an email to [email protected].

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