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Employers May Be Required to Accommodate Employees Through Telecommuting


Employers are generally required to provide requested accommodations for disabled employees, as long as those accommodations are reasonable and do not place an "undue hardship" on the employer. A question that comes frequently with regard to accommodations is what type of accommodation is reasonable. Of course, the answer always depends on the specific situation; however, the ability to work from home or "telecommute" has become a very common request.

EEOC Required to Accommodate Asthmatic Employee

The EEOC, this time as the accused employer, dealt with this very issue in Buie v. Berrien. Buie had lung disease and asthma, which makes her sensitive to the air quality. She asked her employer to accommodate her disability in one of two ways: either give her a private office with an air purifier, or allow her to work from home. She was told that there were no private offices available and she could not telecommute. So, she was placed in an open cubicle, which did not allow her to use an air purifier effectively. She also asked to be transferred to a mediator position, but was also denied that request.

The court determined that the EEOC did not demonstrate how Buie's request to work from home was unreasonable or would have created an undue hardship. The court reasoned that the Rehabilitation Act (an anti-disability discrimination statute) "requires an agency to consider work at home" as a possible accommodation.

Some Pros and Cons of Telecommuting

The EEOC argued in that case that Buie's job duties could not be completed remotely, making this accommodation unreasonable under the circumstances. Because Buie was newly-hired, they reasoned, she needed to be in the office to receive her assignments and to receive on-the-job training. Buie disputed this, pointing out that she had already been trained by her supervisor.

The Commission went on to propose that her inability to access onsite files from home was another drawback of telecommuting. Buie argued, however, that she could use her computer at home and, with the assistance of coworkers, access everything she needed to do her job.

The court did not decide whether the employee's plan would ultimately be disruptive or ineffective, but instead determined that the requested accommodation could not be found unreasonable as a matter of law. In other words, the jury would have to decide the outcome.

Redefining the Workplace

In April of 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was likely the first court to decide that employers could be required accommodate workers with disabilities by allowing them to telecommunicate. Much like the court in Buie v. Berrien, the court in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company did not make its decision binding on employers. This falls in line with a growing trend of expanding the definition of "workplace."

In the Ford Motor Company case, the employee was afflicted with Irritable Bowel Syndrome ("IBS") which frequently led to occurrences of fecal incontinence. She requested to be allowed to work from her home as an accommodation. Ford management denied her request, positing that the requirements of her position necessitated in-person contact with coworkers and Ford clients. As with Buie's case, the court did not determine, as a matter of law, that telecommuting was a reasonable accommodation. Instead, the court held that the jury must be allowed to make that determination.

If you have been denied a reasonable accommodation, you may have grounds to file a claim under employment law. To discuss your potential case with a Birmingham employment attorney, get in touch with our firm, Michel | King , by dialing (205) 265-1880 or filling out an online form.

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