When a job requires employees to log more than 40 hours per week on a regular basis, is it safe to say overtime is an “essential job function” of that position and deny an accommodation request that attempts to skirt the OT?
That question was at the heart of Agee v. Mercedes-Benz. The plaintiff, Kimberly Agee, had a disability — breast cancer — that required a lifting restriction saying she wasn’t allowed to lift anything over 15 pounds. The company accommodated her lifting restriction by transferring her to work stations where she wouldn’t have to lift anything over 15 pounds.
Then, Agee became pregnant and presented the company with a doctor’s note from her OB-GYN stating that she couldn’t work more than 40 hours per week “due to her medical limitations.”
When the company asked for additional information about the scheduling restriction, she returned with another note that reiterated the need for the 40-hour limit and lifting restrictions because of the pregnancy and her medical issues. However, this note also made it known that the hour-restriction was “seemingly indefinite.”
And here’s where things got interesting. Once company learned about the indefinite nature of the accommodation, it let Agee know it couldn’t accommodate a permanent 40-hour workweek restriction because working mandatory overtime was an essential function of the job. Instead, it told Agee she was being placed on unpaid FMLA leave and that she need to get the doctor to lift the restrictions or it would eventually terminate her.
Agee opted not to take leave, so the company twice restated (in writing) its position that it couldn’t accommodate the hours restriction and told her to fill out the FMLA paperwork.
Although Agee refused to fill out the paperwork, she told the company that she wasn’t abandoning her job. Because Agee never went on leave but wound up missing work. As a result, she racked up a series of unexcused absences and the company wound up firing her as a result of those absences.
Agee then filed an ADA disability discrimination suit against the company.
What the court said
The court agreed with the company’s argument that working overtime was an essential function of Agee’s position. Therefore, Agee wasn’t a qualified individual because the indefinite restriction on her hours ensured she wouldn’t be able to work overtime — an essential function of her position.
Bottom line: Agee couldn’t perform the essential functions of the job with or without the accommodation, so the company did not violate the ADA by refusing to grant her indefinite scheduling restriction and firing her for unexcused absences.
It helped the company’s case that both the job description for Agee’s position backed up the position that working OT was an essential job function and that it had offered her unpaid leave while the two sides tried to come to some type of arrangement.
3 best practices
The court’s ruling here confirms something very useful for employers regarding the handling of ADA accommodation requests: You can deny accommodations that would lime employees’ abilities to fulfill essential job functions — even if those functions are working mandatory overtime hours.
Of course, employers want to avoid situations that lead to the courtroom altogether. To that end, The Employer Handbook offers these three tips for handling accommodations:
- Review and update job descriptions regularly. In order to claim something is an essential job function, you should be able to show it was listed in the job description — like the company in this case did.
- Consider other options. Instead of focusing solely on whether an employee can perform a single job function, look for transfers to other positions or leave (just not indefinite leave) as a reasonable accommodation. And document the process. This show you tried to go above and beyond for the person.
- Be flexible. Communicate regularly and offer a number of different accommodation opportunities. Remember, the more accommodations an employee refuses, the more unreasonable he or she will appear about the process.