The “workplace” is not limited to the physical worksite provided by an employer. Its reach is expanding, and judges have begun to argue that advances in technology may make working remotely a reasonable request. Telecommuting and working remotely were once considered “reasonable accommodations” only in extraordinary circumstances, but a recent court decision indicates that may be changing. Courts may no longer defer to employers’ assertions that physical presence is an “essential job function” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
EEOC v. Ford
The Sixth Circuit court of appeals recently delivered its decision in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. The plaintiff in the case, Jane Harris, worked as a resale steel buyer, ensuring the supply of steel to Ford’s part manufacturers remained smooth and stable.
Plaintiff suffered from a disability which required her to make sudden and frequent trips to the restroom. Her disability was recognized under the ADA, and she requested to work remotely for several days a week.
Ford denied her request because the company decided mandatory meetings were best done face-to-face, and that phone calls and emails, were inadequate alternatives. Instead, Ford offered to transfer her to another position which would allow working remotely, or to move her cubicle closer to the women’s restroom. She declined both options. Her working relationship with Ford continued to deteriorate, until her termination in September 2009.
The lower court dismissed plaintiff’s claims, because it agreed with Ford’s determination that physical presence is an essential function of Ms. Harris’ position. However, the Sixth Circuit reversed; refusing to defer to Ford’s determination. Prior to this case, courts generally accepted an employer’s decision to require physical presence at a worksite, but the Sixth Circuit pointed to advances in communication technology, making telecommuting much more feasible.
Allowing Employees to Telecommute
In general, there are significant costs and benefits to allowing an employee to telecommute. Having employees who telecommute reduces an organization’s overhead by saving on costs such as rent, office furniture, supplies, and utilities. Remote attendance also promotes productivity by allowing flexibility between work and an employee’s personal life. Moreover, this flexibility increases loyalty, as employees can appreciate the opportunity to live a balanced life. It communicates to employees that the organization trusts and values them, and is willing to forgo traditional practices to maintain the employment relationship.
Despite the potential benefits of remote employment, there are several instances when it may not be appropriate. Remote employees pose management issues, such as limiting the employer’s ability to provide instant feedback and directly mentor the employee. Also, the employee’s presence may be critical to operating the organization’s day-to-day affairs. Besides management issues, a remote employee may become disconnected from the organization’s culture, as he/she loses the camaraderie of an office setting.
Message to Employers
The court notified Ford, and other employers, that physical presence at an employer’s facility is not per se essential for every position. Employers in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, have been instructed to more carefully consider employee requests to work remotely. By evaluating the practical implications of telecommuting, employers can determine how essential physical presence is to a particular position. Although Ford only directly impacts the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction, the technology making telecommuting possible exists across the country and is a pertinent issue in today’s workplace. This case heralds the acceptance of telecommuting as a form of reasonable accommodation under the ADA.