Employers with “telecommuting” policies should take care — employees might request working from home as a disability accommodation. That’s according to a decision handed down by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in , E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Company, filed 4/22/14.
The case involved a woman who bought steel for the car company’s manufacturing and parts operations, who had a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Ms. Harris requested being allowed to telecommute because of her digestive problems, as an accommodation for her disability. The company denied her request, saying that Ms. Harris’ job required in-person communication. Instead, they offered her an in-office location closer to the restroom.
Ms. Harris sued, and the Court determined that Ms. Harris couldn’t do the job, even with the accommodation of being able to work from home. The Court sided with Ford’s assertions that the in person interactions were an “essential function” of the job Ms. Harris performed. Because she could not be physically present at her job regularly, then Ms. Harris’ termination was ruled appropriate.
The Court observed that working from home is rarely determined as a reasonable accommodation. The case suggests that telecommuting will only be allowed as an accommodation in rare circumstances. But Employer friendly web sites are already advising companies to carefully define their “essential functions” in job descriptions –if regular physical presence in the workplace is part of the job, then the job description should say so. The same sites recommend listening to employees who are making requests that might relate to a disability. For employees requesting an accommodation, it can be helpful if the request is in writing, and states that the employee is seeking the special treatment as an accommodation for a disability.