As our world's technology continues to advance to new heights, the ability to work from just about anywhere is becoming more and more possible. With laptops, tablets, Smartphones and clouds, there is a greater ability to be more mobile than ever before. As our times are changing, so does the law to address the changing needs of American citizens. So, it seems inevitable that courts would eventually be faced with the question, should allowing an employee to telecommute be required as a reasonable accommodation for a disability?
The Sixth Circuit is the first to address telecommuting
In April of this year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was apparently the first court to hold that employers may be required to allow employees to telecommute, as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Although the court, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, did not make its decision binding on employers in the Third Circuit, the case may still be very significant because it demonstrates a willingness to expand the traditional concept of what constitutes a "workplace" in light of our modern technology.
The Facts involved in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company
Jane Harris, on whose behalf the EEOC filed suit, was employed as a "resale buyer" for Ford. As such, she was essentially an intermediary between steel suppliers and third-party companies. Her job required, primarily communicating with individuals over the phone and inputting information into Ford's computer system.
Ms. Harris was afflicted with Irritable Bowel Syndrome ("IBS") which routinely caused her to experience fecal incontinence. As a result of her IBS, she requested she be allowed to work from home as an accommodation. Ford management denied her request, saying that her position also required in-person contact with her fellow employees and Ford clients. The EEOC initiated the lawsuit, claiming disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
What does the ADA require employers to do?
Along with prohibiting employers from discriminating against "qualified" individuals with disabilities in their employment decisions, the ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with a known disability. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment or modification provided to a disabled employee that will allow that person to have equal employment opportunities.
The only real exception to this requirement occurs when the reasonable accommodation imposes an "undue hardship" on the employer. That means, if the accommodation is extremely difficult or requires significant expense. An employer is not required to lower its production standards or the quality of its work just to make an accommodation for an employee.
What does this Sixth Circuit decision mean?
The court in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company did not determine, as a matter of law, that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation. The court simply decided to allow the jury to determine whether the employee could perform the essential functions of her job from home.
What is significant, though, is the court's recognition that, while regular attendance at the employer's physical workplace may generally be an essential function of most jobs, due to advances in technology, "attendance" can no longer be assumed to mean that an employee must actually be present in the physical workplace.
If you have any questions or concerns about your rights under the ADA, or any other issue regarding your employment, feel free to contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.