The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered employers, absent an undue hardship, to provide a reasonable accommodation to an otherwise qualified individual who meets the definition of disabled. A qualified individual is someone who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the position. In the early days of the ADA, around the 1990s and 2000s, federal courts routinely rejected claims that an employer failed to reasonably accommodate an employee by refusing to allow them to work from home. These courts noted the importance of actually attending the workplace, along with technological limitations on remote work for most jobs.
In recent years, federal courts have largely reconsidered these earlier cases. Improved communications technologies allow more seamless remote performance of many job duties. For many companies, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a beta test for the idea that their jobs can be effectively performed from any location. As a result, requests for remote work as an ADA accommodation have increased, along with the employer’s legal obligation to seriously consider these requests.
So what happens if an employer receives a request from an employee to work from home due to a medical condition? First, the employer needs to determine whether the employee is disabled as defined by the ADA and the scope of the disability, typically by requesting detailed information from the employee’s medical provider. Once the disability is defined and confirmed, the employer and the employee need to determine whether remote work is a feasible accommodation as requested by the employee. An important note here is that the employee does not get to dictate what accommodation is provided if there is more than one suitable and reasonable alternative. The employer’s job is to determine whether any accommodation is reasonable given all of the facts and circumstances. This requires flexibility on the employer’s part, and a mere inconvenience is not enough to create an undue hardship to absolve the employer’s responsibility for granting an accommodation.
For remote work, some jobs still require the employee to be in the workplace, at least part of the time. The employer could propose a hybrid working arrangement that combines remote work with some time in the office. If the employer agrees to a remote working accommodation, it should make clear that this is not a permanent change to the working arrangement. The employer should reserve the right to revisit the accommodation if the employee’s medical circumstances change, or if the business’s needs make the granted accommodation no longer feasible or reasonable. The entire accommodation process should be documented, along with the business reasons used to base any rejection of the employee’s accommodation request.