Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?
Woman with chronic health condition sues after her request to work from home was denied
If your job tasks are mostly accomplished on a computer, chances are you’ve considered the idea of telecommuting. Maybe your employer has even allowed you to work from home rather than use a sick day.
But do companies have to let you work from home if you suffer from a physical condition that makes it hard to come into the office?
That’s the question that was considered in the case EEOC v. Ford Motor Co.
Let’s take a look at the circumstances of the case – and how the court’s decision may impact how telecommuting is handled under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Medical Condition Interfered with Work
Ford employee Jane Harris suffered from irritable bowel syndrome. The condition caused her to have to use the restroom suddenly and unexpectedly up to several times each day. In fact, the condition was so extreme that Harris sometimes soiled herself.
Obviously, going to work was a challenge – especially since doing so involved a one-hour commute.
As a resale buyer, Harris needed to be in contact with many people during the workday. Much of her work could be done over the phone and via email. However, the job also entailed frequent and spontaneous face-to-face meetings with buyers and Ford employees.
Even though Ford generally did not allow telecommuting for people in Harris’s position, she was allowed to attempt telecommuting on a trial basis on several occasions. Unfortunately, Harris was unable to establish regular and predictable work hours during any of her trial periods, so the arrangements were always revoked.
Despite that, Harris continued to ask to be allowed to telecommute four days per week. Her requests were denied.
The company offered to move her work area closer to the restroom. It also offered to move her to a different job that was more suited to telecommuting. Harris refused.
She filed a complaint with the EEOC.
Not long after that, she was terminated for poor performance.
The Feds Take Up Her Case
The EEOC sued Ford on Harris’s behalf. It argued that by denying Harris’s request to work from home, Ford failed to accommodate her under the ADA.
The company countered that it had attempted to allow Harris to telecommute several times without success. It also alleged that “face time” was an integral part of Harris’s job, so people in her position generally were not allowed to work from home on anything more than an occasional basis.
After a lengthy legal battle, Harris eventually lost the case on appeal.
The court ruled that a company couldn’t be required to allow an employee to telecommute if the person needed to be physically present at work to carry out duties that were integral to the job.
Because Harris’s job required in-person interaction with others, she could not adequately perform her job duties if she didn’t have regular and predictable on-site attendance.
What it means to you
Even though this woman lost her case, it’s important to keep in mind that the ADA requires evaluation of accommodations on a case-by-case basis. In other words, the court didn’t hand down a blanket “no” on telecommuting, rather it just stated that working from home wasn’t reasonable in this case.
That’s why it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney if you feel that your company hasn’t appropriately accommodated your medical conditions.
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