As HR pros already know, disabled employees still need to be able to perform the essential functions of their job, with or without an accommodation.
But what happens if an employee can’t come into work because of their condition, but can still get their work done? Is attendance in the workplace necessary then?
In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, an employer tried to argue attendance is always an essential function.
Heidi Hostettler was a full-time HR generalist at the College of Wooster. After having a baby and taking 12 weeks of maternity leave, Hostettler informed her employer she had a severe case of postpartum depression and separation anxiety. Her doctor recommended she only go back to work on a part-time basis for a few months.
The college allowed Hostettler to work half days in the office. Even after going home for the day, Hostettler would still do her work and be available if anyone needed her.
When those two months were up, Hostettler was still unable to come back to work full-time. The college fired her, citing full-time attendance as an essential function of the position. Hostettler sued the company for violating the ADA.
The college claimed Hostettler’s part-time schedule put a burden on the department, and it could no longer accommodate her in that way — a full-time employee needed to be in that position.
But Hostettler showed the court she was able to complete all her core job functions at home. Her co-workers even confirmed there were no issues with Hostettler working from home, and she finished all her tasks in a timely manner. At one point, Hostettler received a performance review while she was working her modified schedule, and the evaluation was positive.
The court first ruled that attendance isn’t automatically an essential job function, and it needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Attendance is only essential when an employee’s physical presence at the worksite is required to complete the job.
In this case, the court felt Hostettler could complete her job remotely, adding, “full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says it is.”
Keeping this in mind, it’s a good idea for employers to re-examine job descriptions. Determining which functions can only be performed on-site and which can be done remotely will give you a good idea of whether attendance is essential — and save you from making the same costly ADA mistake as the College of Wooster.