Work-from-home arrangements were always a potential accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and they became generally more prominent when the now-lingering pandemic first hit.
But despite their proliferation, some employers are continuing to run into trouble when it comes to permitting work-from-home schedules.
A case in point: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) just settled a lawsuit it filed on behalf of an employee who allegedly was illegally denied a work-from-home job accommodation.
The EEOC said Ronisha Moncrief worked as a health and safety manager for ISS Facility Services Inc.
From March 2020 through around June 2020, the agency said, ISS had its employees work remotely for four days of each workweek.
Sometime in June, the EEOC added, ISS asked its employees to return to work at its job site on a full-time basis.
Work-from-home accommodation sought
That is when Moncrief, who has a pulmonary condition, asked for a disability-related job accommodation.
Specifically, she asked ISS for permission to work remotely for two days each workweek – and be allowed to take frequent breaks when she was working on site.
The EEOC’s suit alleged that even though ISS allowed other employees in Moncrief’s position to work from home, it denied her request. To make matters worse, it then terminated her employment.
That alleged conduct violated the ADA, the agency alleged in the suit. In addition to discriminating against Moncrief based on her disability, ISS also illegally retaliated against her, the suit said.
Generally speaking, the ADA requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified applicants and employees with disabilities, so long as doing so would not create an undue hardship.
Of course, it also prohibits employers from terminating the employment of qualified individuals with disabilities based on disability.
ISS broke both of those rules, the suit said, and further retaliated against Moncrief for seeking a legitimate disability-related job accommodation.
The agency filed the suit in a federal district court in Georgia. It said that it did so after first attempting to resolve the matter via a pre-litigation conciliation process.
Money plus other relief
To end the suit, ISS agreed to pay $47,500. In addition, it will also provide training to its employees relating to the requirements that are set by the ADA. It further agreed to make changes to its employment policies and permit the EEOC to monitor how it responds to future requests for job accommodation.
Some work-from-home questions have become more complicated in light of COVID-19.
Here are some that the EEOC has specifically addressed in guidance.
One sticky question that may arise if an employer requires employees to work from home due to the pandemic: If the employer provided disability-related accommodations to the employee in the workplace, must it provide them to the employee at home?
On this question, the agency advises that the employer and employee should discuss what is needed and why – and whether a substitute accommodation might work in a home setting. The undue hardship inquiry is significantly affected when the accommodation is provided at home rather than at work, the agency adds. For example, it says, the unknown duration of a period of telework may make it unreasonable for an employer to provide certain accommodations.
More akin to the situation that led to this settlement, in the guidance the EEOC specifically advises that when an employer reopens after a COVID-19-related period of telework, it does not automatically have to grant telework as a reasonable accommodation to every employee with a disability who wants to continue to work from home. Instead, telework need not be granted as an accommodation unless there is a disability-related limitation that requires it.
Important reminder: The ADA never requires employers to eliminate essential job functions as a disability-related accommodation – even if an employer chose to excuse employees from performing essential job functions during a period of telework.
The overriding key to avoiding liability under the ADA in job accommodation cases: Engage in a good-faith interactive process with the employee to learn the full and true nature of any disability-related limitations and whether accommodation enabling the performance of essential job functions can be provided without causing undue hardship.