The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that an employer reasonably accommodate an employee with a disability unless the proposed accommodation would impose an undue hardship. Often, one of the first accommodations requested by employees is the ability to work at home rather than come into the workplace. Sometimes such requests flow from genuine needs related the employee’s disability, but other times they stem from the employee’s desire to be away from the day-to-day oversight of the employer.
Courts that have looked at this issue usually have determined that working from home is not a reasonable accommodation, recognizing (rightly, we think) that working at home makes supervision and interaction with coworkers more difficult. Over the years, the fact that so many courts reached the same conclusion about working from home gave a certain amount of comfort to employers that denied such requests. They could be reasonably certain that their decisions either would not be subject to challenge under the ADA or, if challenged, would not be second guessed.
On April 22nd, however, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals from federal district courts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) departed from this trend and held in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Company that working from home may be a reasonable accommodation in some situations. The court distinguished earlier cases by explaining that technology has extended the workplace beyond the office’s brick and mortar walls and made telecommuting more viable.
The decision in the Ford Motor case likely opens the door to more accommodation requests from employees involving working at home, and ensures greater scrutiny by courts of an employer’s reasons for denying such requests. Going forward, employers will need to closely examine the pros and cons of any bid to telecommute, as an automatic denial will be more risky under the ADA. In addition, employers should reassess their job descriptions and determine whether a physical presence in the office is an essential job function. Furthermore, employers need to consider that if they allow some employees to telecommute, courts may assume that telecommuting would be a reasonable accommodation for other employees.