Telecommuting has become increasingly popular as business is conducted
more frequently online. But is a company obligated to give its employees
the option to telecommute as an accommodation under the Americans with
A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Court said yes (maybe). Jane Harris
was a "resale steel buyer" for Ford. Although she worked primarily
on the phone and at the computer, she was also expected to meet personally
with suppliers. Her co-workers said that they could not imagine being
able to do their jobs remotely. Although some workers were allowed to
telecommute, they could do so no more than two days a week.
Ms. Harris was afflicted with irritable bowel syndrome, which caused her
to have unexpected embarrassing accidents. She requested permission to
telecommute four days a week. Ford proposed other reasonable accommodations,
including moving her desk close to the restroom and letting her transfer
to another position that was more conducive to extensive telecommuting.
Ms. Harris refused both of these proposed accommodations, and filed a
disability discrimination charge with the EEOC.
Then she got a poor performance review from Ford and was terminated. The
EEOC sued on her behalf under the Americans with Disabilities Act for
disability discrimination and retaliation. A federal district judge in
Michigan ruled for Ford and threw out the case, but a majority of a three-judge
panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed that decision on appeal, meaning that
the EEOC will get a jury trial on both the failure to accommodate and
According to the Court, "the ADA directs us to consider several factors
when determining whether an accommodation imposes an undue hardship on
an employer:(1) the nature and cost of the accommodation, (2) the financial
and personnel resources of the affected facility, (3) the resources of
the employer as an entity, and (4) the structure and functions of the
employer's workforce. Although setting up a home workstation for Harris
might entail some cost, considering Ford's financial resources and
the size of its workforce, this cost is likely to be de minimis. Indeed,
Ford has created a written policy in which it pledges to absorb these
costs for all employees approved to telecommute. Therefore, Ford has not
met its burden of proving that a telecommuting accommodation, even if
reasonable, would create an undue hardship."
The takeaway? If you are suffering from a disability, engage with your
employer about telecommuting as an option. You are entitled to such an
accommodation under the ADA.