Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation for Disabled Employees?

November 25, 2015

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to provide disabled employees reasonable accommodation. As a result, employers are forced to ask difficult questions, such as whether an employee is a qualified individual with a disability or whether the requested accommodation is reasonable. Technology which enables employees to work from home has added a new level of complexity.

The Sixth Circuit’s EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, 782 F.3d 753 (CA6 2015) opinion provided much needed guidance to employers on telecommuting requests. Judge McKeague wrote the opinion, stating “The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to reasonably accommodate their disabled employees, it does not endow all disabled persons with a job – or job schedule – of their choosing.”  Id. at 753. The Court held that Ford Motor Company (“Ford”) was not required to allow an employee, whose job was highly interactive, to telecommute up to four days a week on an as-needed basis.

As a resale buyer the employee was required to act as an intermediary between field and part suppliers, a “highly interactive” job. Although some interaction occurred by email and telephone, many interactions required “good old fashion[ed] interpersonal skills.” The employee’s performance deteriorated over time because of absences caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The employee requested the accommodation of telecommuting from home up to four days per week on an as needed basis. During a meeting with her supervisor and an HR representative, the employee admitted that she would be unable to perform four of the essential job functions from her home. As a result, Ford denied the request to telecommute, but offered to move her work area closer to a restroom, or allow her to look for a job better suited for telecommuting. Ford’s offers were declined. Four months later, the employee missed a deadline and her employment was terminated for subpar job performance and excessive absenteeism.

“[A] reasonable accommodation may include job restructuring and part time or modified work schedules, but it does not include removing essential functions from the position.” Because the employee admitted that she could not perform essential job functions, the court concluded she was not a qualified individual with a disability and denying the telecommuting request did not violate the ADA.  

Employer lessons:

  • Technology enables many employees to perform essential job functions working from home.
  • The job description is frequently the employer’s first line of defense in a failure to accommodate case.
  • Employers should review current job descriptions and essential job functions.
  • Is regular on-site attendance an essential function of the job?
  • What about interaction with customers, vendors or colleagues?
  • Where applicable, job descriptions should note that the position requires regular on-site attendance and interaction with others.

Contributed by Maureen Rouse-Ayoub, Bodman PLC.