Those employers that have 15 or more employees are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and have a duty to make a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disability.
The courts have been divided about whether allowing an employee to work from home (telecommuting) can be a reasonable accommodation. A recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit provides an example of a court concluding that this potential accommodation might be reasonable.
The employee in that case, EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., suffered from irritable bowel syndrome. When her symptoms worsened she began to miss increasing amounts of time from work, which hurt her job performance. The company initially allowed her to telecommute on a trial basis, but ultimately concluded that the arrangement was not appropriate because there were important aspects of the employee’s job such as meetings with certain suppliers that she could not perform remotely, and that in-person teamwork was an essential part of her job. When she was unable to be at work in person on a regular basis, the company terminated her employment.
The EEOC filed a lawsuit on the employee’s behalf, but the trial court granted summary judgment to Ford and dismissed the suit before it reached a trial. The judge ruled that the company was justified in terminating the employment because of excessive absenteeism, and that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, however, and concluded that there was a genuine issue of fact for a jury to decide whether the employee could perform all of her job duties from a remote location. The fact that the employee could not meet the employer’s attendance requirements was not an absolute disqualifier if she were able to perform her duties remotely. A jury will now decide whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation for this employee’s disability.
This and other similar cases should serve to alert employers that telecommuting cannot automatically be dismissed as a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s disability. Employers must determine on a case-by-case basis whether the disabled employee’s job duties can be performed remotely without undue hardship to the employer.