Many employers fear employees who work from home or “telecommute” lose the benefits of working along-side their peers. According to the Head of Human Resources for Yahoo, Jackie Reses, “[t]hat is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu meetings.” But in some circumstances employers may be required to allow disabled employees to telecommute. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that allowing a disabled employee to work from home, or “telecommute,” four days a week could be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The case is E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Co., 752 F.3d 634 (6th Cir. 2014), where the plaintiff, Jane Harris, was a former Resale Buyer for the Ford Motor Company. Her position focused on group problem solving and required her to be available to interact with suppliers and members of the resale team.
The Plaintiff Requests An Accommodation For Her IBS
Harris suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (“IBS”), a condition causing fecal incontinence, which caused her to have many absences from work. Harris asked Ford to accommodate her IBS by allowing her to telecommute up to four days per week.
Ford Denies The Plaintiff’s Request To Telecommute
Ford denied Harris’s request, contending that face-to-face interactions, group problem solving and physical presence at the office were “essential functions” of her position. Ford did, however, suggest other forms of accommodation such as switching Harris to a job more suitable for telecommuting, or moving her cubicle closer to the bathroom. But Harris rejected these suggestions and filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming Ford had violated the ADA by failing to provide accommodate her request to telecommute. The EEOC sued Ford on Harris’s behalf.
The Sixth Circuit’s Decision
The Sixth-Circuit held that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The Court reasoned that technological advances have made it possible for many employees to effectively perform the essential functions of their jobs remotely. Although Ford believed face-to-face interactions were necessary to facilitate the group problem-solving inherent in Harris’s position, the Sixth Circuit recognized that teleconferencing technologies have diminished the necessity of in-person contact to facilitate group conversations. According to the Sixth Circuit, attendance in the workplace is no longer assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location. Rather, the law must respond to technological advances and recognize a “workplace” is anywhere an employee can perform his or her job. Therefore, there was a genuine dispute over whether telecommuting was a reasonable accommodation for Harris’s disability, and a jury will have to resolve this dispute.
The Impact Of E.E.O.C. v. Harris On Employers And Courts
This decision is an important recognition that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, based upon changes in how employees perform their jobs in the year 2014. The Sixth Circuit’s decision will benefit employees seeking to bringing failure to accommodate claims under the ADA because it erodes the idea that an employee’s physical presence in a physical office location is inherently an essential job function. The decision also shows the Sixth Circuit is not willing to defer to an employer’s business judgment about what jobs are suitable for telecommuting.
A Cincinnati disability discrimination lawyer can answer questions you have about your right to telecommute if you have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Contact an experienced employment discrimination lawyer at Robert A. Klingler Co., L.P.A. to have your questions answered.