Must an employer permit disabled employees to work from home or telecommute?
In the past, Jonathan R. Mook explains, the courts generally have not viewed telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation required by either the Americans with Disabilities Act or the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. However, the tide may be shifting. In Woodruff v. Peters, the District of Columbia Circuit indicated that telecommuting may be an appropriate reasonable accommodation for a federal employee.
Mr. Mook discusses this shift in judicial thinking and offers guidance as to how employers may determine in a given case whether they need to allow a disabled employee to telecommute.
It always is risky to try to predict the future. Yet, it is a safe bet that issues concerning the legal obligations of employers to allow disabled employers to telecommute will continue to gain prominence in the coming years. The Internet revolution has forever changed the way in which employees interact with each other and with the public. Although face-to-face discussions still will be a facet of business and commerce in and around the world, the need for daily in-person communication certainly is not what it was when the
ADA was signed into law in 1990.
Moreover, as physically commuting to and from work becomes more onerous with traffic congestion and traffic jams becoming a never-ending constant, telecommuting likely will become more and more a common part of business operations. Recent academic studies and articles in the popular press have emphasized the dollar costs and emotional toll upon employees from commuting to and from a central office location. As reported in one recent article, "researchers have found that hours spent behind the wheel [commuting to and from work by car] raise blood pressure and cause workers to get sick and stay home more often." Other studies have shown that by avoiding the stress of traffic jams, employees "believe they can maintain or increase their productivity and quality of work."
Employers are well advised to start planning now on how to deal with requests not only from disabled workers, but also from non-disabled employees to telecommute or work at home. If properly structured, an employer's telework program can increase employee satisfaction and productivity and, at the same time, fulfill the employer's legal obligation to accommodate those employees with disabling conditions that make it difficult for them to physically commute to and from work.
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