Almost a year ago, we wrote that a panel of the Sixth Circuit in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, bucking the trend elsewhere, had held that an employer could be required to permit an employee to work from home as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Last week, however, the entire Sixth Circuit, in an 8-5 decision, issued an opinion overturning the panel’s decision and finding that in-person attendance at the work site is generally an essential function of most jobs, particularly those that are interactive. The court recognized that advances in technology may mean that regular on-site attendance won’t be necessary for every job, but noted that the job of Jane Harris, on whose behalf the EEOC brought suit, as a resale buyer for Ford was not one that could be done from home.
Through the years, Ford had made numerous attempts to reasonably accommodate Ms. Harris, who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, but none of these attempts, which included trials of telecommuting, were successful. Ultimately, Ms. Harris asked Ford to be permitted to work from home up to four days per week. The nature of her job, however, required teamwork, meetings with suppliers and stampers and on-site availability to participate in face-to-face interactions. These factors in the Court’s opinion all necessitated Ms. Harris to achieve regular and predictable on-site attendance. Accordingly, the Court upheld her termination from employment.
Take-away: Ford was successful in this case largely because of its efforts to find a reasonable accommodation for Ms. Harris before finally concluding that there was nothing else to try. Therefore, this decision should not cause employers to uniformly reject telecommuting requests as reasonable accommodations. Instead, an employer should still carefully analyze the employee’s job to determine whether it, or another vacant job for which the employee is qualified, can be done on a telework basis. If not, the employer should consider whether other reasonable accommodations will permit the employee to successfully perform the essential functions of the job.