The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has put employers on notice that they may need to accommodate employees with disabilities by allowing them to work remotely from home, forcing employers to reconsider whether a physical presence in the office is an essential job function.
With its decision in EEOC v. Ford, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 7502 (6th Cir. 2014), the court has redefined what employers can deem to be the essential job functions of their employees. Now absent from this list is the need to attend work at a brick-and-mortar location.
With recent advances in technology, many of the tools and resources that were once available only at brick-and-mortar worksites are now custom-place in the homes and lives of employees. Recognizing this technological progression, the Sixth Circuit decided that the physical presence of certain employee-types at an employer’s worksite is no longer essential to performing job duties.
In EEOC v. Ford, the court held that Ford did not provide a persuasive justification for not accommodating an employee’s request to telecommute four days a week while dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”). The employee in the case was a resale steel buyer for Ford. Her job duties required frequent interactions with other Ford employees to facilitate steel purchases. Based on that requirement, Ford told the employee that her physical presence at the worksite is essential to an efficient job being done ‒ even though Ford had allowed some employees in the same group to telecommute one day a week. The employee later filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Shortly thereafter, Ford terminated the employee on the basis of her poor job performance.
The trial court dismissed the EEOC’s charge that Ford violated the employee’s rights under the American’s with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The Sixth Circuit reversed that decision, unpersuaded by Ford’s assertion that attendance at its brick-and-mortar worksite is essential to performing the job of resale steel buyer. The court saw no reason why telephone conferences and similar technology could not be an adequate substitute.
As a result of this decision, employers should be mindful of what constitutes the essential function of an employee’s job when it comes to being physically present in the office. There seems little doubt that a construction worker needs to be on-site to perform that role, but for many other job positions, it will be increasingly difficult to argue that phone and internet connections at home are not sufficient to perform as effective a job as would be done at the office.