IS TELECOMMUTING A REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION FOR EMPLOYEES?
Posted by: Mary Ann Stewart
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 752 F.3d. 634 (C.A. 6, 2014) has agreed to hear en banc (meaning all of the judges of the Sixth Circuit and not just a three judge panel) the question of whether an employer has to consider as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employee’s request to work from home. The outcome of the case may convert the modern worksite from being a physical place to a metaphysical existence.
The plaintiff, an employee with Ford Motor Company had a history of on-the-job attendance and efficiency issues. She also suffered irritable bowel syndrome, and requested that she be allowed to work from home in the event that she had an “accident”. She was a sales person whose job required her to have face-to-face time with clients in addition to telephone and computer duties. Co-workers who were also salespersons testified that they could not imagine being able to effectively and efficiently do this job remotely from home. Ford Motor Company did not grant the plaintiff’s request to work remotely from home four days per week, but instead offered other accommodations, including placing her desk next to the restroom, or transferring her into another position that would permit her to work remotely. Plaintiff rejected these accommodations. She continued to be routinely absent from work and her work output suffered. After being terminated for poor job performance, including excessive absenteeism, Plaintiff sued under the ADA.
The three judge panel for the Sixth Circuit held that telecommuting could be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and therefore, remanded the case for a jury trial on Plaintiff’s claim that she had been fired in violation of the ADA. The panel held that changes in technology have rendered actual on the premises attendance non-essential in many jobs because a “workplace” is anywhere an employee can perform her job. What the panel seemingly ignored however, was the evidence that telecommunicating in this particular instance was not effective for the plaintiff’s position; that Ford had offered other reasonable accommodations; and that Plaintiff’s absences caused disruption and inefficiency for other employees who relied upon her being at the job and engaging in the face time with the clients.
The Ford Motor case highlights the dilemma facing employers. Technology has certainly made telecommuting easier for employees; but the question remains whether technology has now converted a modern convenience into a reasonable accommodation under federal law?