“Japanese Cherry Blossom” sounds like a lovely perfume. But one employer’s refusal to provide a “fragrance-free” workplace from that scent caused a major disability kerfuffle — and, in court, an important ruling on telecommuting as a potential accommodation.
Pamela Core worked at the Champaign County Department of Job and Family Services in Urbana, Ohio.
Core suffers from asthma and a severe chemical sensitivity to certain perfumes and other scented products.
When one of Core’s co-workers began wearing a “Japanese Cherry Blossom” perfume — which includes notes of kyoto rose petals, himalayan cedar, musk, plum and oakmoss, among others — Core complained to her superiors. The only problem: Her complaint wasn’t addressed.
Her issues with the scent became so severe that she eventually had to have emergency medical treatment.
And here’s where things go from bad to worse.
Following her medical emergency, Core’s co-workers began mocking her chemical sensitivity on Facebook. Those staffers also continued to wear the perfume on purpose, knowing it would have an adverse effect on Core.
A note from a nurse practitioner eventually convinced the company to email staff asking them not to approach Core personally, and only communicate with her via phone or email.
But Core eventually was forced to take leave because her symptoms continued to worsen.
Core asked to work from home as an accommodation, but her company said no.
The firm eventually agreed to ask staff not to wear the Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, but Core said that wasn’t enough – she wanted every staff member to be prohibited from wearing any scent near her. The company said no.
‘It would be impossible’
So Core sued, alleging that the company failed to accommodate her request for a fragrance-free workplace.
The company asked the court to throw the case out.
First, it said it was impossible to provide Core with a fragrance-free workplace — her job required that she interact with members of the public.
Second, the firm argued that it had already accommodated Core’s disability by requesting that employees not wear the Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume.
But the court ruled in Core’s favor.
Since Core worked with customers, the court said the company was right that it couldn’t provide a completely fragrance-free workplace. But it did say doing so would “at least minimize and limit the employee’s exposure to perfumes.”
And the court found that Core’s “no-fragrances” request might actually be reasonable — especially because of Core’s colleagues’ behavior and the lack of disciplinary action taken by the company.
The case can now move forward to trial, and you know what that means — a lengthy trial or an expensive settlement, or both.
Telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation
The case has a number of important takeaways for both accommodation and telecommuting requests, according to Mike Underwood of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur.
First, just because an accommodation would be unpopular with staff doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable.
Second, the court punished the company for failing to take action sooner in stopping the harassment against Core.
But most importantly, the court went out of its way to note that telecommuting-as-reasonable-accommdation requests will be looked at differently than they have in the past.
This is perhaps unsurprising — the court notes that technology has changed a lot since one of the first work-from-home accommodation requests was examined in court in 1995.
But this case just goes to show how far telecommuting has come as a viable for both employers and employees in the last 20 years.
Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employment Law Blog suggests firms take the following three steps to be ready in case a staffer requests to work from home as an accommodation for a disability:
- Prepare job descriptions detailing the need for time spent in the office
- Research the costs of maintaining a telecommuting program, and
- Engage in an interactive dialogue with disabled staff and come to agreement on alternative accommodations that work for both parties.