Telecommuting isn’t Always a Reasonable Accommodation

If your job is highly interactive, telecommuting may not qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

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The full U.S. Sixth Circuit Court recently overturned a disability discrimination case brought forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Ford Motor Co.

EEOC vs. Ford Motor Company

Jane Harris worked as a resale steel buyer for Ford Motor Company from 2003 to 2009. Harris suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which was often debilitating and caused numerous absences. In 2008, Harris missed an average of 1.5 days per week and in 2009, was absent more than she was present. Harris’s frequent absenteeism started to affect her job performance. Her supervisors tried working with her through the interactive process to find a suitable solution.

Harris was offered several accommodations, including the opportunity to work a flex-time schedule and telecommute as needed on a trial basis. Yet, her performance continued to deteriorate. She began to make mistakes and miss deadlines. Even though she was unable to meet her performance goals, Harris requested that she be allowed to telecommute up to four days per week. Harris’s supervisors did not grant her requested accommodation, but they did offer a few alternative accommodations such as; moving her desk closer to the restroom or looking for a job within the company that was better suited to telecommuting. Harris turned down the alternative accommodations. Her supervisors told her they would be willing to talk to her again if she could identify another accommodation. Harris claimed the denial of her request violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC. She was eventually terminated from her position.

When Telecommuting is Unreasonable

On initial review, a panel of three Sixth Circuit judges agreed with the EEOC and ruled that allowing Harris to work from home was a reasonable accommodation for her disability. This decision caused several state Chambers of Commerce to ask the full Sixth Circuit to re-evaluate the panel’s ruling—arguing the decision gave employees the power to decide when and where they work. The full Sixth Circuit agreed to rehear the case and eventually sided with Ford. The Court’s decision focused on the fact that Harris’s highly-interactive position was not conducive to extensive telecommuting. Harris herself admitted that at least eight of her ten job responsibilities could not be performed effectively from home. Although Ford allowed employees with certain positions to telecommute on a more regular basis, it had limits around telecommuting for resale buyers.

Under the ADA companies are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities, if the employee is able to perform the essential functions of the job. The Court held that consistent, predictable, on-site attendance is ‘essential’ to be qualified for jobs requiring team work and interactive behaviors. Harris’s position had such requirements. The Court decided that Harris was not a ‘qualified’ individual for reasonable accommodation because “regular and consistent on-site attendance was essential for Harris’s position, and Harris’s repeated absences made her unable to perform the essential functions of a resale buyer.”

Suggestions for Employers

Employers should actively participate in the interactive process with the employee. Evaluate the specific circumstances of the request as well as the essential functions of the employee’s job to determine whether it can be completed remotely. If the position cannot be completed remotely, consider other reasonable accommodations that would allow the employee to successfully perform their job. The ADA requires employers to evaluate each accommodation request on its specific circumstances as well as on a case-by-case basis.

What is the Interactive Process for Reasonable Accommodation Requests?

The interactive process is the collaborative effort between the employer and employee to determine if the employee is able to perform required job functions and if the employer can make a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability.

If your company uses the interactive process to find reasonable accommodation for employees, document the process to demonstrate your good-faith effort to accommodate an employee’s disability.

What is Reasonable Accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice is “any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions.”

What is the ADA?

The ADA became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities. The ADA is enforced by the Department of Labor (DOL), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Of the roughly 97,000 discrimination charges that the EEOC receives every year, nearly 26 percent are related to claims of disability discrimination.

For more information on the ADA or reasonable accommodation, please check out our other blogs here and here.

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