In EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled on telecommuting and whether it was essential for a disabled employee to be present at an employer’s physical location or if telecommuting was a reasonable accommodation.
This case started with an employee that had developed health issues that made commuting and moving around from place to place within Ford’s office difficult and sometimes led to embarrassing accidents. The employee’s role was as a resale steel buyer, which meant her core job function was problem-solving, making it essential that she collaborate and stay in contact with her coworkers and vendors throughout the workday.
Ford had a telecommuting policy available to salaried employees, which allowed them to work remotely up to four days a week, depending on their job duties. Ford agreed to a test run of a flex-time telecommuting setup for the inflicted employee, which failed because the employee could not provide consistent work hours, making communication and collaboration with teammates and vendors during normal work hours difficult.
The employee maintained that she needed to telecommute due to her disability and asked Ford to allow her to work remotely providing 80% of it was during normal business hours. Ford rejected this request and ended the trial run but offered the employee additional in-office accommodations that were aimed at making her situation a bit more comfortable in the office. They also suggested she consider seeking another job at Ford that was more conducive to telecommuting.
The employee then filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because she believed that Ford failed to accommodate her disability. She was soon fired and, believing that the termination was due to the employee’s EEOC complaint, the ensuing EEOC court case also included the charge of retaliatory termination.
The trial court ruled in Ford’s favor and indicated that the employee’s request to work remotely was not a reasonable accommodation for the job and that Ford successfully proved that they terminated her due to poor attendance and job performance that took place prior to her EEOC complaint and the firing was not retaliatory in nature.
The lower court’s ruling was appealed to the Sixth Circuit, who reversed the dismissal of the suit in a split (2-1) decision and remanded the case.
The Sixth Circuit determined that the employee remained qualified for her position if her employer’s request for physical presence was removed and if she was available during normal business hours while working remotely. They placed the burden on Ford to prove that physical presence in the office was an essential job function or that the employee working remotely created an undue hardship for the employer.
Ultimately, the higher court ruled that, due to technological advances, workplace attendance doesn’t necessarily mean attendance at the physical location of an employer any longer. They essentially considered a workplace to be any place that the employee can perform their essential job duties.
Depending on the position and the documented job description, attendance at a physical location may not be an essential job function. Advances in technology are making it harder for employers to justify the need for work to be performed “on site.” Under ADA/ADAAA, “essential job functions” and “undue hardship” must be reviewed on a case by case basis in order to ensure compliance.
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