A federal appeals court recently ruled that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation for disabled workers, but employers do not have to honor such requests if they have business or strategic reasons for not permitting such arrangements.
The April 2015 decision by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. is an excellent illustration of how employers can deal with requests for telecommuting as part of your obligation to accommodate disabled workers. If you are amenable to telecommuting and an employee requests it, you have an easy situation, but if you do not want employees telecommuting for strategic or business reasons, you will need to make sure that you have your ducks in a row.
The dispute in the case centered on Ford Motor Co.’s rejection of an employee’s request to telecommute as an accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome condition.
The request contemplated the employee telecommuting up to four days each week. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require job restructuring or modified work schedules as a “reasonable accommodation” for an otherwise qualified disabled employee, many jobs require some collaboration, personal interaction and supervision that is not feasible if someone works from home.
Through the years, Ford had made numerous attempts to reasonably accommodate the employee, a resale buyer for the company, but none of these attempts, which included trials of telecommuting, were successful. Ultimately, the employee asked Ford to be permitted to work from home up to four days per week.
The nature of her job, however, required teamwork, meetings with suppliers and stampers and on-site availability to participate in face-to-face interactions. These factors in the Court’s opinion all necessitated Ms. Harris to achieve regular and predictable on-site attendance.
Ford denied the employee’s request, saying that physical attendance in the workplace was an essential function of her job. The employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Ford had violated her rights to accommodation under the ADA. The EEOC brought suit on her behalf after she was fired.
The court, however, determined that Ford did not violate the ADA by rejecting the employee’s request to telecommute, because “regular and predictable attendance” was an essential function of her job. Accordingly, the Court upheld her termination from employment.
Ford was successful in this case largely because it had made serious efforts to reasonably accommodate her before finally concluding that there was nothing else to try.
But this ruling does not mean that employers can uniformly reject telecommuting requests as reasonable accommodations. Instead, an employer should still carefully analyze the employee’s job to determine whether it, or another vacant job for which the employee is qualified, can be done on a telecommuting basis.
If not, the employer should consider whether other reasonable accommodations would permit the employee to successfully perform the essential functions of the job.
Here are the main takeaways:
• Telecommuting may be a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.
• Employers can require actual physical attendance at work if it is legitimately deemed an essential function of a job.
• Employers should document that regular physical attendance is an essential job function and include it in any written job description.
• Employers should be consistent in the application of any telecommuting decisions and document such decisions.