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Let's say you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a disease that causes fecal incontinence. Sometimes it's so bad that you can't drive to work without soiling yourself, or, if you get to work, you can't get up from your desk without soiling yourself. Might telecommuting be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
On April 22, the Sixth Circuit decided yes.
A Crappy Set of Facts
The case at hand features Jane Harris, a former resale steel buyer for the Ford Motor Company, whose performance from 2004 through 2008 was rated as excellent plus. During her entire employment with Ford, she suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Her disease grew progressively worse and in February 2009, she requested that she be allowed to telecommute when her IBS made it impossible to come in, up to four days per week.
Ford denied the request, claiming that "teamwork" was required and that her physical presence was therefore an "essential function" of her job. Harris filed an EEOC charge. Ford then began giving her negative performance reviews. Ford also instituted weekly one-on-one, closed-door performance meetings where Harris was yelled at and not allowed to leave the room. Ford later fired her.
Harris sued, claiming (among other things) that by not letting her telecommute, Ford violated the ADA by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Ford. The 6th District reversed.
Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation?
Well, it depends. The issue here was whether Harris' physical presence in the workplace was an "essential function" of her job, as Ford claimed. If it was, then Ford would not have had the legal duty to allow Harris to telecommute.
In 1997, the court concluded that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation for most jobs, although there might have been unusual cases where it was. Here, the court notes that the classes of cases where an employee can fulfill all job requirements while telecommuting has greatly expanded and telecommuting is no longer unusual or extraordinary.
Rather than merely deferring to the employer's business judgment as to whether telecommuting would present an undue hardship, the court considered all relevant factors and found that there was enough evidence to dispute Ford's claim that Harris' physical presence was an "essential function." It therefore reversed the summary judgment in favor of Ford.
The first lesson from this case is that courts are starting to recognize telecommuting as a standard, not an extraordinary, working arrangement.
The "number two" lesson for employers is simply this: follow the law. In other words, if your excellent employee needs to telecommute because of bowel problems and can fully discharge her duties by doing so, let her do it and don't be a pain in the @$#.