For many employees, the opportunity to work from home may sound like a dream, but for others it may soon become a necessary reality. That is, if a recent Circuit Court ruling under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) comes to spread to other circuits throughout the country as well.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which sits in Cincinnati OH) recently held that an employer may be required to grant telecommuting requests as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The case in question, EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., was based on an employee’s request to telecommute up to four days a week as a reasonable accommodation due to irritable bowel syndrome which had been turned down by her employer. Reasonable accommodation is required for individuals with disabilities under the ADA if they are otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of their positions, provided the accommodation does not impose undue hardship on the employer.
In this specific case, the employee’s job required significant group problem-solving and other interaction with co-workers and suppliers of the company. She also needed to be available during regular business hours to handle emergencies as they arose. When the employee’s condition worsened to the point where she couldn’t drive or even stand up from her desk, she requested permission to work remotely up to four days a week. The employer denied the request largely because it believed that regular face-to-face communications were an essential part of the job for someone in the employee’s position, just as it had always been considered in the past.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on the employee’s behalf, but the lower court sided with the employer. It gave full credence to the employer’s view that the ability to interact face-to-face with others constituted an essential function of the position and held that the employee was therefore no longer qualified for the job with or without her requested accommodation. On appeal, however, the Sixth Circuit reversed.
The Sixth Circuit refused to grant deference to the employer’s determination that “physical attendance” was an essential function of the employee’s position. The Court considered the employee’s own impressions of how often she spoke to other employees face-to-face and via conference call, but most importantly spoke to the nature of the modern workplace. The Court noted that the notion of the need for physical presence in the workplace as being an essential function of a position may be antiquated. Concepts of “the workplace” have changed due to e-mail, teleconferencing and other online communication such that employees can be far more “present” in the workplace than ever before without having to be in the same location as those with whom they interact.
What does this mean for you?
It is likely more employees throughout the country will request telecommuting as reasonable accommodation for disabilities and employers can no longer simply deny such requests with “they’ve gotta be here; that’s the way it’s always been!” As the Court noted in its decision, today’s workplace is a whole new animal, and it will no longer be unusual for an employee to perform much of his or her job from home.
Further, we can all expect increased scrutiny by the EEOC of employers that deny requests for telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA as evidenced by its aggressive pursuit of the Ford Motor Company case.
Your telecommuting and reasonable accommodation policies should be reviewed in light of these developments. If you have no such policies as yet, now is the time to create them. We’re here to help.
Either in person or via telecommunication … your choice.