Telecommuting as a Reasonable Accommodation

COVID-19 has brought both telecommuting and reasonable accommodation to the fore, raising issues that likely will continue long after the pandemic has passed. The following is a little insight into policy and regulation.

Telecommuting is a work arrangement that enables employees to perform their job duties at an approved alternative work site — typically, from home. 

Though telecommuting has made huge strides over the past decade, its adoption has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the crisis, “The [telecommuting] genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not likely to go back in,” according to the Global Workplace Analytics website.

Related to this is “reasonable accommodation,” which Telework.gov defines as any modification in the work environment “to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.” 

How are the two connected?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation for disabled individuals who are unable to perform their jobs in the workplace — provided the job can be done at home without posing undue hardship to your business.  
For example, you might accommodate a disabled employee (who wants to work from home) by relaxing your telecommuting eligibility requirements or changing certain workplace policies to suit that employee.  

Do employers have to provide telecommuting programs?
The ADA does not require employers to offer telecommuting programs to all employees. But if you have a telecommuting program, employees with a qualified disability must be allowed to participate. 

What if the employer has no telecommuting program and a disabled employee asks to work from home?
Per Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, you can allow disabled employees to telecommute even if other employees aren’t permitted to. Just know that you aren’t obligated to grant the employee’s request to telecommute if an effective alternative is available. 

Requests for reasonable accommodations should be done on a case-by-case basis. Further, your decision as to whether to offer telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation should be made through an “interactive process” between you and the employee.

How does the interactive process work for telecommuting and disability?
The “interactive process” starts right after employees disclose to you that they have a medical condition that is disrupting their ability to do their job as required. 

To determine whether the job should be done from home, you may need to:

  • Ask employees how the disability is limiting their ability to carry out their duties in the workplace. 
  • Request reasonable documentation on employees’ medical conditions.
  • Decipher whether employees have a disability as defined by the ADA.
  • Examine the essential functions of the position to see whether working from home is a viable option.
  • Look into other alternatives, such as changing employees’ work schedules, restructuring the job, or having employees work from home only “as needed.”

You do not have to approve employees’ requests to telecommute if the arrangement will cause your business undue hardship as defined by the ADA. Note that the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees; however, states may mandate employers with fewer employees offer reasonable accommodations.

Finally, keep in mind that ADA rules and implications are complex, and you should get expert advice before making decisions in order to avoid employee complaints and even lawsuits.

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