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Sheena Harrison

Work-from-home policies for disabled employees need review after EEOC ruling

August 17, 2014 - 6:00am


In the wake of a federal court ruling that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disability Act, experts say employers should evaluate their work-from-home policies to determine how to handle disabled workers' requests.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Co., the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled 2-1 in April to resurrect a case alleging Ford violated the ADA.

An employee was terminated in 2009 after Ford said she could not work from home up to four days a week as an accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome. The 6th Circuit panel ruled that Ford failed to prove the worker needed to be in the office to do her job as a resale steel buyer and remanded the case to U.S. District Court in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In light of the ruling and EEOC guidance allowing telecommuting as an ADA accommodation, companies need to review their disability programs and determine if telecommuting requests can be handled under current company policies, said Linda Batiste, principal consultant with the Job Accommodation Network in Morgantown, West Virginia

“Because modifying policies is a form of reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the employer has to consider modifying that (work-from-home) policy,” said Ms. Batiste, whose office is part of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

In some cases, employers also may have to provide equipment for employees to work at home.

For employers that offer telecommuting as an ADA accommodation, many say implementing such programs has been tricky, according to an employer survey last September by Reed Group Ltd. and Spring Consulting Group L.L.C.

Of 270 employers responding to the survey, 34% said they offer work-from-home as an ADA ac-commodation if a doctor requires it for the disabled employee.

“I think (telecommuting is) something that employers are increasingly considering as an accommodation, but I think depending on the job type, it can be ... challenging,” said Kevin Curry, senior vice president and national practice leader with Reed Group in Westminster, Colorado.

Of surveyed employers that offer telecommuting, 85% said their biggest challenge is establishing management oversight of employees working from home; 72% struggle with facilitating team interaction with telecommuting workers under ADA restrictions.

“If the employer doesn't have things like ... video conferencing or a culture of remote employees, sometimes it can be difficult for the individual who has the accommodation to work at home to actually feel integrated into the team,” Mr. Curry said.

Oversight challenges and concerns that temporary accommodations might become permanent often make employers reluctant to allow telecommuting under the ADA, experts say.

It is crucial for employers to determine whether an employee's essential job functions can be performed from home or if the job truly requires them to be in the office, said Paul Hagle, executive director of the Rancho Mirage, California-based National Association of ADA Coordinators.

“There may be people who have to be at work because of the nature of their job,” said Mr. Hagle. For example, a company receptionist may be unable to answer and transfer an employer's calls from home, he said.

If working from home is possible, employers should weigh whether an ADA request can be met under a company's standard telecommuting policy and can ask for medical documentation, Ms. Batiste said.

However, if time that a disabled employee needs to work from home falls within the policy for all employees, companies should not request documentation of the person's disability to approve tele-commuting in that case, she said.

Employers often seek “medical information when they really need to just apply their usual policies and procedures,” Ms. Batiste said. Requiring a disabled employee to provide medical documentation for telecommuting under standard company policy could be considered discrimination under the ADA, she said.

Experts recommend that employers keep in close contact with employees in temporary work-from-home accommodations.

Ms. Batiste said employers can allow telecommuting on a trial basis to see whether it allows the employee to perform their essential job functions. “It's always OK to set it up as a temporary accommodation that you're going to reassess just to see how it's working before you make it a permanent accommodation,” she said.

Additionally, Reed Group's Mr. Curry said employers can have telecommuting employees sign agreements that outline conditions such as the hours that they're expected to work and requirements for keeping supervisors updated on their work progress.

 



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