Is telecommuting a reasonable accommodation for a highly interactive job?


Jane, a resale buyer at your manufacturing company, is responsible for purchasing and reselling steel to suppliers. Her job entails some individual tasks, but it is also highly interactive, requiring periodic site visits and frequent, sometimes impromptu, meetings. Suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, she requested a reasonable accommodation to work up to four days per week from home. Finding that in-person attendance was essential to her job, your company denied her request but offered several alternative accommodations such as moving her closer to a restroom. Jane subsequently filed an EEOC charge, claiming that your company’s denial of her request violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Will she prevail?


Probably not. In a case with similar facts, the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, concluded that “regular and predictable on-site job attendance” was an essential function of the employee’s job and, therefore, her request to telecommute for up to four days per week was not a reasonable accommodation. Under the EEOC’s regulations and informal guidance, “essential functions” are those functions that would fundamentally alter the job if removed. Thus, an employer could refuse a request to telecommute if the job had certain requirements, such as in-person interaction with clients, customers, or coworkers and immediate access to materials or information only found in the workplace.

The court noted that the employer had a long-time practice of placing resale buyers in the same building as the stampers they supplied, that resale buyers who telecommuted were only allowed to do so one day per week with the agreement that they would come in to work if needed, and that the employee agreed that four of her 10 main duties could not be performed at home. Technological changes only went so far, the court said, because “technology has not changed so as to make regular in-person attendance marginal” for the job in question. Thus, it followed that her “up-to-four-days telecommuting proposal” was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA given the highly interactive nature of her job.

Source: EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. (6thCir 2015) No. 12-2484.

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