Human Resources News & Insights

Telecommuting as ADA accommodation: Where courts draw the line

A new ruling should give firms more insight into when they have to allow accommodate workers’ requests to work from home.

Here are the details of the recent case:

Jane Harris, a resale buyer for Ford Motor Company, had irritable bowel syndrome that resulted in frequent and unpredictable absences from work. She asked Ford if she could participate in the company’s telecommuting program by working from home four days a week.

Ford said no — Harris’ position required her to regularly interact with co-workers and contacts. Ford also produced evidence that meeting with suppliers — another important part of Harris’ job — was most effective when done face to face.

Ford countered with several alternatives, including offering to find Harris another position within the company that would allow her to telecommute or moving her desk closer to a restroom. Harris refused all of Ford’s suggestions.

Harris’ performance eventually declined, and, after she was put on a performance improvement plan, she was fired.

Telecommuting wouldn’t work

Harris went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed suit against Ford on her behalf. The agency claimed that Ford should have accommodated Harris’ disability and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to do so.

But the court wasn’t having it.

The primary reason: Harris wouldn’t have been able to perform the essential functions of her job at home.

And although the company allowed people to work from home occasionally, it was generally for just one day a week and it was scheduled ahead of time.

Not every position qualifies

The takeaway: Yes, allowing disabled staff to work from can qualify as a reasonable accommodation in some cases.

But even if a company allows some staffers to work from home, it doesn’t have to allow every employee.

Employers would do well to do what this company did:

  • Spell out the reasons why telecommuting wouldn’t work, and
  • research and potentially offer other alternatives.

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