Telecommuting…remote workers… flexible work… these terms have become so commonplace in discussing today’s work environment that it is easy to forget that these approaches to structuring work are options available to employers, not obligations. This was put to the test last week, when the Sixth Circuit ruled that an employee need not be offered telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation to a chronic medical condition. In the case of EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., a resale buyer with Ford had a disability which frequently made her unable to work at a Ford facility. The nature of her job required direct personal interactions with others at the company as well as with vendors. Ford attempted to accommodate her with an alternate schedule, and telecommuting when needed, but these approaches failed and she was unable to satisfactorily perform her duties remotely. When she requested permission to telecommute up to four days per week, Ford denied the request as unreasonable. The case was decided in Ford’s favor mainly because the court determined that the accommodation would adversely impact the company’s productivity. Accommodations are intended to be fair to both parties. The court acknowledged that it was not possible for a resale buyer to perform nearly eight out of ten of her job duties remotely. When a particular job role requires the worker’s in-person attendance, it becomes an essential function.
The court’s assertion that common sense understanding of a situation becomes an important guide in interpreting such nuances comes as a shot in the arm for employers, who feel uncertain of their rights with regard to acceptable standards in offering reasonable accommodation to protected categories of workers.
Reasonable accommodation today is all about individual assessment and customization. The accommodation may be called for to protect religious rights or deemed necessary under Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The recent Supreme Court verdict favoring the accommodation of pregnant workers adds them to the list of protected people needing differentiated treatment. The trick lies in staying compliant with all the laws, while designing accommodations that do not hinder business performance.
In determining the accommodation to be provided under each of these categories, a blanket approach will not work. In the case cited above, Ford was able to demonstrate to the courts that numerous sincere attempts at accommodation had been made, and all had failed. Accommodations should be structured through an interactive and iterative process which is tailored the accommodation to the individual’s job role and personal needs. The needs of an employee who is diabetic may not be the same as the needs of a pregnant female employee with high sugar levels. In every case, a joint effort is required to arrive at a working relationship that works for all parties. As the courts have indicated, assumptions of rights and obligations can lead either party to a disappointing conclusion.
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