Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation for a Disability?

Apr 22 2015 - Disabilities, Workplace Policies - Gail Cecchettini Whaley

The answer is not a simple yes or no.  Yet, a federal circuit court of appeals, in a positive ruling for employers, recently held that telecommuting is not a reasonable accommodation when regular predictable attendance is an essential function of the job. The case is EEOC v. Ford Motor Company.

Of course, not all jobs require an employee to work on-site all the time. But, using the “sometimes forgotten guide” of common sense, the court noted that “[n]on-lawyers would readily understand that regular on-site attendance is required for interactive jobs.” (Emphasis added.)

Background

In this case, the employee, a resale buyer for Ford Motor Company, suffered from a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome and requested to work from home up to four days a week as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. At various times in the past, Ford tried to accommodate the employee with flexible scheduling and some telecommuting options. However, the prior attempts did not remedy the illness or the employee’s attendance issues. Ford had a practice and policy in place that allowed telecommuting for resale buyers one day a week.

Ford denied the request to work up to four days a week from home. But prior to denying the request, Ford engaged in the interactive process with the employee and discussed her essential job functions and whether she could perform them from home. Out of 10 job tasks, the employee admitted she could not perform four of them from home, including meeting with suppliers, making price quotes and attending meetings.

Ford felt that another four of those 10 job duties could not be performed effectively at home. As a resale buyer, part of the job required interactive meetings with suppliers at their sites and with Ford employees at Ford’s site. It was Ford’s judgment that these interactions were best held face-to-face, and its policies and practices supported that this was a legitimate, job-related requirement.

Although Ford denied this specific request, it offered other accommodations, including looking for jobs better suited for telecommuting. The employee rejected further efforts and filed a charge with the EEOC, claiming that the denial of her request violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The employee was eventually fired for poor performance and absenteeism. The EEOC brought suit.

Holding

The Sixth Circuit found that for this employee’s particular highly interactive position, regular, predictable on-site attendance was an essential function of her resale buyer job and that Ford’s denial of the four-day-per-week request was reasonable. Moreover, the court noted that Ford did act in good faith to engage in the required interactive process with the employee to try and find a reasonable accommodation, even suggesting other positions that would allow for more telecommuting options.

Exercise Caution

Employers will want to exercise caution, however, before automatically denying a reasonable accommodation request to telecommute. This case is fact-specific and involved a highly interactive position. Each case needs to be evaluated individually to determine whether work from home may be allowed.

This case was decided based on federal law in a federal circuit outside of California; it is not clear if the Ninth Circuit (which covers California) would reach the same decision. Furthermore, state disability law under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act specifically lists “permitting an employee to work from home” as an example of a reasonable accommodation.

Gail Cecchettini Whaley, CalChamber Employment Law Counsel/Content

CalChamber members can visit the HR Library for more information on the Interactive Process for Reasonable Accommodations. Not a member? See how CalChamber can help you.

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