Employer Must Prove That Physical Presence In The Workplace Is An Essential Job Function
An employee, who suffered from severe irritable bowel syndrome that often made it difficult for her to stand without soiling herself, requested to be allowed to work from home when necessary. Although the employer had allowed other employees in her job classification to work from home on a limited basis, it denied the employee’s request because it anticipated that she would need to work from home with greater frequency. The employee sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), alleging that the employer had failed to accommodate her disability. The employer countered that being in the office was an essential function of the employee’s job, which emphasized teamwork and in-person team problem solving. A federal trial judge found that the employee’s proposal was not reasonable under the ADA and summarily dismissed the complaint.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Detroit, reversed the lower court in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 7502 (6th Cir. 2014), finding an issue of fact as to whether the employee’s request to work from home was a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances. The court observed that owing to technological advances, the workplace can be anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties, and, found evidence that in this instance, a great deal of the employee’s work could be done over the telephone or by videoconference.
The takeaway: Where an employer claims that a particular job requires an employee’s physical presence in the workplace, the burden is on the employer to demonstrate the unreasonableness of an employee’s telecommuting request. Where an employer accommodates an employee’s request, however, it must still address the related problems of tracking work hours for non-exempt employees, remotely monitoring employee productivity and performance, and maintaining data privacy and security of sensitive company and customer information.