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Road Rules: Ruling Now Guides Telecommuting As Reasonable Accommodation Discussion

Posted in CHRO & EEOC, Class Actions, Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Litigation

My colleague, Gabe Jiran predicted the future!

Well, not exactly. But in a post earlier this month, he outlined some of the issues relating to whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

And now we have some court guidance on the subject.  The road to understanding an aspect of the “reasonable accommodation” is paved with court rulings.  Read on….

Close on the heels of my last post on telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a federal court of appeals shown itsheadlights on the issue with a new decision.

In EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a former Ford employee could proceed to a trial on her claim that the company was required to allow her to telecommute on a regular basis.

First, a quick background on the plaintiff: she was a “resale buyer” at Ford who responded to emergency steel supply issues to make sure that parts manufacturers always had an adequate steel supply on hand.

According to Ford, her job required group problem solving, including interaction with other members of the resale team and suppliers.

However, because the plaintiff suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (“IBS”), she was unable to come to work on a regular basis. She thus asked to telecommute up to four days per week, which was permitted in certain occasions by a company policy. Ford denied her request, and several months later terminated her for performance issues.

The Court decided that Ford had to consider telecommuting as an option for the plaintiff. In reaching this conclusion, the Court made some interesting observations that have implications for any employer confronted with an employee requesting to telecommute.

Here are the key points:

  1. While attendance at work is still an essential function of most jobs, “attendance” can no longer be assumed to mean presence at the physical workplace.
  2. The “workplace” is anywhere that an employee can perform the job.
  3. Even where a job requires teamwork or interaction with colleagues, an employee can often perform those functions remotely with advances in technology such as teleconferencing.
  4. Jobs suitable for telecommuting are no longer extraordinary or unique, and the universe of potential telecommuters is expanding rapidly.

The Court was careful to note that where predictable attendance during core business hours is an essential function of the job, that telecommuting may not work. However, the Court clearly took an expansive view of the company’s requirement to consider a telecommuting relationship for its employees.

While the Sixth Circuit does not cover Connecticut (we are in the Second Circuit, after all), decisions such as this can be persuasive to Connecticut courts and agencies like the CHRO.

Further, you can believe that the EEOC will use this decision in evaluating any telecommuting cases regardless of the state.

The takeaway for employers in Connecticut when “driving” forward (sorry, more car puns with a case name like this): Proceed with caution!