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Technological Advances May Make Telecommuting A Reasonable Accommodation Under The ADA

by Katherine Tracy

On April 22, 2014, the Sixth Circuit held that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Company.

In Ford Motor, the employee requested that Ford accommodate her disability (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) by permitting her to work from home on an as-needed basis. Ford had a policy permitting employees to work from home; but, the policy stated that telecommuting may not be viable for all jobs, employees, work environments and managers. After receiving her request, Ford met with the employee and determined that a telecommuting arrangement did not suit her job duties. Ford offered the employee other accommodations, which the employee rejected. Ford eventually dismissed the employee.

The EEOC later filed claims against Ford for violating the ADA by failing to accommodate the employee’s disability and for retaliation. The district court granted summary judgment in Ford’s favor finding, in part, that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the entry of summary judgment finding that a genuine dispute existed as to whether physical attendance at Ford’s facility was an essential function of the employee’s position and as to whether the employee can effectively work from home.

Discussing the failure to accommodate claim, the Court held that that the vital question does not relate to attendance but whether the employee’s physical presence in the facility was essential. The Court recognized that “technology has advanced in the intervening decades, and an ever-greater number of employers and employees utilize remote work arrangements, attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location.” Furthermore, “the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context, as it has in other areas of modern life and recognize that the ‘workplace’ is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.”

With regard to the telecommuting request, the Court recognized that Ford routinely confused the request to telecommute with a request for a flex-time schedule. Accordingly, Ford did not provide “any evidence that a telecommuting arrangement, as opposed to a flex-time arrangement, is inherently problematic.”

The Court’s opinion makes one thing clear – employers must consider changing technology when addressing accommodation requests by employees. While telecommuting may have previously been an unreasonable accommodation even just several years ago, monumental jumps in technology have changed the lens through which an employer should determine whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation. Therefore, “given the state of modern technology, it is no longer the case that jobs suitable for telecommuting are ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unusual.’”

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