Telecommuting as an ADA Accommodation

Employers frequently ask about the obligations imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for a “reasonable accommodation”. The ADA requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business. A reasonable accommodation can include assistance or changes to the work environment such as addition of or changes to equipment, changing the work space, adjusting telecommuteschedules, or similar sorts of flexibility to permit a worker to perform the essential functions of a job.

But must an employer make a reasonable accommodation to allow employees to work from home?

A recent case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, ruled that a reasonable accommodation required by the law can include telecommuting where the employer cannot show that the employee’s physical presence is an essential function of the job.

An employee of Ford Motor Company with “irritable bowel syndrome” sought the right to work from home on some days to avoid the stress of commuting and working from her desk at the office. Though the employer had a telecommuting policy for certain employees that allowed work from home for a limited amount of time, the company denied the employee’s request to work from home when she was symptomatic. The employee’s performance declined, she was discharged, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on her behalf for violation of the ADA.

The court found that advancing technology allows flexibility in work situations, and held that the ADA requires reasonable accommodations permitted by technological advances. Absent a showing that employee’s physical presence at the employer’s facilities was essential, telecommuting should have been permitted as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s condition. The result vindicated the position of the EEOC that an employer should allow telecommuting, where possible, as a reasonable accommodation. That is likely to lead the EEOC to apply this more broadly.

How does this affect a car dealership? The doctrine probably has limited utility. Most car dealer jobs require physical presence for face to face interaction with customers, various forms of work on inventory and customers’ vehicles, handling of and sales of parts, etc. However, dealers should be careful because the case may empower the EEOC to continue to broaden the extent of ADA reasonable accommodations. If a dealer uses job descriptions or explanations of job requirements, those should clearly note the importance of physical presence for those employee positions where that is required.