If an employee claims that she needs to work from home due to a medical condition, do you have to grant such a request under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Typically, the answer is no. Physical attendance is often an essential job function. So, even if some job duties could be performed remotely, being at work is still considered a critical part of the job. In a recent case, a federal district court in Michigan reiterated that principle, rejecting a claim brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Ford Motor Company.
In that case (EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., Case No. 11-13742, E.D. Michigan), an employee with irritable bowel syndrome asked to work from home up to four days a week. Ford ultimately rejected the employee’s request. Although Ford allowed some employees in the same group to telecommute, those employees worked at home only one day a week, on a prescheduled day. Also, the employee who made the request had a history of attendance and performance problems, and Ford concluded that working from home that many days per week would not allow the employee to interact with others, as needed to complete her job. The employee then filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. A few months later, Ford placed the employee on a performance improvement plan for failing to meet certain goals, and then discharged her when she did not successfully complete her improvement plan. The EEOC later sued Ford for failing to accommodate the employee, and for retaliating against her for filing a charge of discrimination. The federal district court rejected both claims as a matter of law.
The court noted that the employee was absent more often than she was at work, which meant she was not a “qualified” individual under the ADA. More importantly, though, the court rejected the EEOC’s argument that Ford should have allowed the employee to telecommute. Courts typically do not second-guess an employer’s business judgment regarding what job functions are essential. Here, Ford said that attendance was an essential job function. In addition, courts generally find that working at home is “rarely a reasonable accommodation.” In this case, that was especially true because the employee wanted to work from home up to four days per week, choosing what days to work from home at her own discretion; she had frequent and unpredictable absences, which negatively affected her job performance and increased her colleagues’ workload; and her managers did not agree that she could complete her job duties from home. Therefore, the court concluded that working from home was not a reasonable accommodation in this case.
The court also rejected the EEOC’s retaliation claim. There was no evidence that Ford’s stated reasons for the employee’s low performance rating and ultimate discharge were “pretextual,” or a cover for unlawful retaliation.
Although Ford prevailed in this case, employers can expect more and more requests from employees to work from home as technological advances make it easier to communicate and complete certain tasks remotely. Therefore, consider these tips:
- Review and, if necessary, update your job descriptions to make sure they capture the essential job functions. If attendance at work is an essential job function, make sure your job description says so, either directly or through a description of other job duties, e.g., employee must regularly interact with managers, customers, and vendors to negotiate sales agreements, etc.
- If you allow one employee to work from home for a non-medical reason, be aware that doing so might impact your ability to decline a request from an employee who asks to work from home for medical reasons.
- If you allow someone to work from home temporarily, be sure to document that it is a temporary issue, and that you will monitor and potentially modify the arrangement as needed.
- If an employee asks to work from home as an accommodation, be sure to engage in the interactive process, e.g., carefully consider the request in light of the employee’s job duties and the organization’s business needs, talk to the employee, and consider other alternatives if working from home is not feasible.
- If you reject an employee's request to work from home, especially if the request is based on an alleged disability or medical condition, be sure you can support your decision with legitimate, nondiscriminatory and nonretaliatory business reasons.