The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently held that employees with a disability may, under certain circumstances, be entitled to work from home as a reasonable accommodation under federal disability discrimination law. The case, EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., will likely have a significant impact for a number of Ohio employees who would otherwise struggle balancing the effects of a disability with their job duties.
Under Ohio and federal law, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of a disability. One type of discrimination specifically prohibited is denying a “reasonable accommodation” of job duties or conditions, if the accommodation would help the employee perform the “essential functions” of his or her job.
In 2009, Ford fired Jane Harris from her job as a resale steel buyer after she asked to telecommute several days a week due to her irritable bowel syndrome. She then filed a disability discrimination lawsuit in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to grant her reasonable accommodation request. The District Court threw her case out, holding that she was not a “qualified individual with a disability” entitled to protection under the law because she could not be physically present at the office to the extent required by Ford. Last week, the Court of Appeals reversed.
The question before the Sixth Circuit was whether physical presence at the workplace was an “essential function” of Harris’ particular job. The Court held it was not. Examining the specific requirements of the job, the Court held that a jury might reasonably conclude she could perform the essential functions of her job from home—that physical presence at the office was not necessary for her to adequately perform the job’s core responsibilities. In reaching that determination, the Court considered the fact that much of her job duties were already done via telephone. The Court also noted that many of her co-workers telecommuted for work themselves, albeit on a more limited basis than sought by Harris. As a result, the Court held Harris’ discrimination claim could proceed.
The decision was no doubt significantly informed by rapid advances in technology over the past decades. The Court explained that because of technological advances, for many jobs, remote work arrangements are not only reasonable, but commonplace. Therefore, “attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location.” (emphasis added). Nevertheless, the Court cautioned that telecommuting will not always be a reasonable accommodation: “For many positions, regular attendance at the workplace is undoubtedly essential.”
Whether working from home would be a reasonable accommodation for a particular employee is a “highly fact specific” question, depending on several factors. So the recent ruling will not protect every Ohio employee with a disability. Still, for some, the Court’s decision offers hope to those employees struggling to balance their job duties with the effects of a disability.