September 9, 2015
Telecommuting means working from home and communicating via telephone, e-mail, or some other form of electronic media. Telecommuting has many advantages. For example, it enables people to work from home when they are ill, to avoid extensive commutes, and to check in at the office from elsewhere. Telecommuting can certainly benefit employees, but two Federal Circuit Courts have now held that it is not a right for people with disabilities.
In April 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co… The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that enable employees with disabilities to complete the essential functions of their jobs. For example, an employer might purchase special software to enlarge the print on a standard computer for an employee with a vision disability. However, employers are not required to hire or continue to employ people who cannot do the work required or, in other words, the essential function of the job, regardless of disability. For example, a trucking company might not be required to hire an individual with vision impairment as a driver.
The Sixth Circuit holding stemmed from Ford Motor Company’s decision to terminate Jane Harris’s employment with the company as a resale buyer. Harris had severe irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to Harris, IBS made it very difficult for her to complete her work. Harris’s job as a resale buyer included meeting with steel suppliers and Ford employees at their respective worksites during regular business hours. Ford argued that Harris’s job was most effectively performed face-to-face. Harris claimed she could complete the work over the phone or via the internet. The court held that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation because “predictable on-site job attendance [was] an essential function of Harris’s job.” In so holding it noted that “most jobs require the kind of teamwork, personal interaction, and supervision that simply cannot be had in a home office situation.”
Similarly, in August 2015, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in Doak v. Johnson. The Rehabilitation Act mirrors the ADA’s language regarding reasonable accommodations and essential functions. The difference between the two is that the Rehabilitation Act only prohibits discrimination by employers who receive federal financial assistance. The ADA is a much broader law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations.
In that case, Edna Doak, an employee with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, suffered from hypothyroidism and depression and in 2009 she suffered a closed-head injury that exacerbated her depression. Doak claimed that her illness and the side effects of her prescription medication made it difficult for her to attend work during her regularly scheduled hours. Doak worked for the Coast Guard as a Management Program Analyst, and her duties included attending in-person meetings with a support team. Doak filed suit against the Department after it denied her request to telecommute and later terminated her employment due to extensive absences. The court held that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act because being present in the office to participate in on-site meetings during normal business hours on a regular basis was an essential function of Doak’s employment.
INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS
- The cases described above are fact-specific and telecommuting might be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances. For example, telecommuting might be a reasonable accommodation for a telemarketer with IBS.
- These cases do suggest that telecommuting is not going to be considered a reasonable accommodation where employers can show that the essential functions of an employee’s job are better performed in the workplace.
- Courts will consider an employee’s written job description in assessing whether certain conduct is an “essential function” of a job. Employers should prepare and provide new employees with a detailed job description.
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.