Welcome to the Digital Age: Technology has changed the workplace so much that employers may not be able to reject a telecommuting accommodation request by saying physical attendance is mandatory.
That’s a major takeaway from a recent court ruling involving the ADA.
In EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., an employee with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) requested a telecommuting accommodation for her disability.
She said her IBS made it impossible for her to drive to work or leave her desk without soiling herself.
The company declined her request because it claimed position required face-to-face interaction action with clients. The employee was an intermediary between steel suppliers and stamping plants.
‘Workplace is anywhere’
On appeal, the 6th Circuit court ruled that Ford couldn’t show that “physical attendance” at its place of employment was an essential function of the employee’s job. For the first time, the 6th Circuit acknowledged technology has essentially expanded the definition of workplace and “attendance” at work may include telecommuting.
As the court put it:
“[A]s technology has advanced … and an ever-greater number of employers and employees utilize remote work arrangements, attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location.
“Instead, the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context … and recognize that the ‘workplace’ is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.”
Detail descriptions, costs
This ruling could signal a major shift in how courts will view telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation moving forward.
However, that doesn’t mean employers should have to extend a telecommuting accommodation to each and every staffer that asks for it.
If you want to prove that employees must be physically present at work – in a way that’ll hold up in court:
- make sure your job descriptions contain clear explanations of why the person must perform their job duties on-site (say, an employee who deals with walk-in customers), and
- outline the hard costs associated with a telecommuting program (equipment costs, additional personnel costs for managing employees who work remotely).
We’ll let Eric Meyer, writing on The Employer Handbook blog, have the last word on this case:
Even though [the decision only covers one federal court district], the court’s 21st century analysis of the workplace should appeal to other courts throughout the country. Therefore, I would expect that this commonsense view of how technology impacts the workplace will soon become the rule, rather than the exception
If you are going to allow some employees to telecommute, courts may assume that telecommuting would be a reasonable accommodation for other disabled employees. [B]e prepared for that.