When Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals shared its perspective on this question and held that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation for an employee where her essential job duties required regular and frequent in-person contact with suppliers and customers.  In some respects, the court’s conclusion that telecommuting may not be appropriate for jobs requiring regular physical attendance is rather unremarkable.  As the use of telecommuting rises, however, the decision’s common-sense approach to the issue is likely to have a lasting impact.

The employee in the case was a resale buyer who had a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome, which lasted for several years and caused her to be increasingly absent as the years progressed.  Her employer, Ford Motor Company, worked with her during that time to accommodate her condition, including several attempts to accommodate a telecommuting schedule.  Over time, however, her job performance continued to deteriorate.  At one point, she requested to telecommute four days per week.  Ford declined the request but offered other accommodations, including relocating her desk closer to a bathroom.  The employee did not accept the alternative accommodations and Ford later terminated her.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission subsequently sued Ford, arguing that the employee’s request for a four-day telecommuting schedule was a reasonable accommodation and that Ford’s denial of the request violated the ADA.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Relying on a “common-sense” approach, the court focused on the highly interactive nature of the employee’s position and found that regular, in-person attendance was an essential function of her job. Although the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities, the court found that the employee in this case was not “qualified” where she could not consistently be on site to perform her job.  Providing a telecommuting accommodation would not have been reasonable because it would not have allowed her to perform the essential interactive duties of her job.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision does not go so far as to hold that telecommuting can never qualify as a reasonable accommodation.  For positions that do not require a high degree of interaction with customers or staff, or that can be performed effectively from a remote location through the use of technology, telecommuting very well may offer a viable accommodation.  Employers should therefore continue to engage with employees requesting telecommuting as an accommodation to determine whether, under the particular facts, the request can reasonably be accommodated.