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Employees Only

Janis Kent, FAIA, Architect, CASp © 2013, Updated March, 2021

So the question that often comes up is, what do we do for employee only spaces? And the answer is, it depends on whether it is an existing employee only space or a new/altered employee only space, whether it is an employee only work area or an employee only common-use space, and then whether it is inside California or outside.

The 1991 ADA had only required employee only work areas to be on an accessible route so someone with a disability can approach, enter, and exit the area, just not necessarily get in and around the space. With the new 2010 ADAS this has increased to also include a common use circulation path within the employee only work area. The common use circulation path requirement does not mean that all elements within the area are accessible but that there is one minimum 36” wide accessible circulation path, aside from a few exceptions.

The 2010 CBC does not define employee areas other than stating they need to be accessible, although it does define work station. Work stations are required to have a 32” clear opening for the entry and need to comply with aisle widths, floor level changes, slip resistant flooring, carpet, and floor grating requirements within the work station. Some employee areas, as defined by Group Occupancies B and H, only require aisle widths of 36″ or 44″, and have specifically defined which areas are considered work areas as well as what other areas are required to be accessible.

There is a similarity of what CBC calls a work station and what ADAS calls an employee only work area with less than 1,000 SF. A common use circulation path is not required within the less than 1,000 SF work area but the entry is on an accessible route and the entry itself is accessible so someone can approach, enter, and exit. A work station is similar to this smaller work area, although in addition it is required to comply with aisle widths and level changes, etc within the work station. There is no requirement by either agency for a turning space – just aisle width and if there is a ‘U-turn’ then the required aisle width at the 180° turn. Both agencies have a similar definition for these smaller employee only work areas. ADAS defines it as less than 1,000 SF defined by permanently installed partitions, casework, or furnishings, etc. CBC defines it as an area defined by equipment and/or work surfaces for one or a small number of employees at a time. Both authorities use almost the same examples – kitchens in small restaurants, employee side of service counters, bars, file rooms, etc – but one defines it by square footage whereas the other by one or a small number of employees, whatever that may be.

In summary, the major difference between both authorities is that ADAS does not require employee only work areas to be fully accessible – just a common use circulation path within, whereas CBC does differentiate which employee areas are to be fully accessible by Group Occupancies. Both require employee common use spaces to be fully accessible although this is not specifically stated as such and leads to further questions. Smaller spaces (less than 1,000 SF or work stations) such as stock rooms, file rooms, or storage areas accessed by employees only have to be on an accessible route and be able to approach, enter, and exit the room although CBC has further requirements for Group B Occupancy storage areas. In addition, CBC requires compliant aisle widths and level changes, etc within the work station. If the area, for example, is an employee research library accessed by more than just the librarian, then this is considered a common use space which would require a common use circulation path per ADAS and compliant aisle widths between stacks per CBC. With both authorities, typically a private office and even a trash enclosure need to be on an accessible route and be able to approach, enter, & exit – in other words open the door and get over the threshold. Machinery rooms such as mechanical, electrical, and communications equipment rooms used by service personnel are specifically exempt from being required to be on an accessible route.

There is no Barrier Removal program for employee only areas in existing buildings. Barrier Removal is for clients and customers only, in places of public accommodation and in those limited areas within commercial facilities where clients and customers might come which would also be considered areas of public accommodation. Employees, though, have some measure of protection, since employers with 15 or more employees are required by Title I of the ADA to provide Reasonable Accommodation in its workplace for those employees needing consideration which is a different concept than Barrier Removal. If an employee only area, though, is being renovated then the altered area is required to be made accessible to today’s standards as previously delineated. If a newly constructed employee only space is not a work area but a common use space, such as lounges, locker rooms, cafeterias, libraries, restrooms, etc, it also needs to be accessible per both agencies. If a space has a new alarm system then wiring is now required to be installed for future visible alarms, but it is not necessary to actually install the visible alarms until required to do so per Reasonable Accommodation. So employee only spaces are not necessarily treated in the same manner as places of public accommodation, but there is some measure of protection under ADA Title I for employees. Consideration should be given since it is far easier to make an employee area accessible during new construction than to alter it in the future to provide for Reasonable Accommodation.

Nothing in this article constitutes legal or design advice for a particular project or circumstance. Be aware that your local City or County may have additional requirements that are different or more restrictive than the State or Federal requirements. Also, this article is an interpretation and opinion of the writer which may vary for a particular project or due to other circumstances. It is meant as a general summary – current original regulations should always be reviewed when making any decisions and specific advice by a qualified professional should be secured for a particular project or circumstance.

© 2013 Janis Kent, FAIA, Architect, CASp