The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees when such accommodations are needed to permit employees to perform the “essential functions” of their jobs.
However, an employee who cannot perform the essential functions of a job, with or without an accommodation, is not considered to be a “qualified individual with a disability” under the ADA, and an employer generally is not required to provide an accommodation to the employee. In other words, an employer is not required to eliminate an essential job function to accommodate an employee with a disability.
Employers sometimes choose to excuse an employee from performing an essential job function (e.g., reporting to the workplace) for a period of time to accommodate the employee’s health needs.
When the time period during which the essential job function is excused becomes extended or indefinite, the employer runs the risk that the excused job function may no longer be considered an essential part of the job for purposes of analyzing rights and obligations under the ADA. As a result, the employer may be required to continue providing the accommodation.
his scenario is playing out throughout the country as employers begin asking employees who have been teleworking to return to the workplace. Some employees are reluctant to return because they have underlying health conditions which put them at increased risk of serious illness if they become infected with COVID-19. These health conditions, combined with extreme risks created by the pandemic, may mean that the employees have a disability under the ADA and are entitled to receive reasonable accommodation from their employer to permit them to perform the essential functions of their job.
If the ability to continue teleworking is the requested accommodation, employers must assess whether reporting to the workplace remains an essential job function, particularly if employees have been working remotely for several months.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) addresses this topic in its recently updated “Technical Assistance Questions and Answers” on issues involving COVID-19 and the ADA and other equal opportunity laws. Assuming an employer grants telework to employees for a period of time in response to COVID-19 and then reopens the workplace and recalls employees to the worksite, the EEOC posits the question: “does the employer automatically have to grant telework as a reasonable accommodation to every employee with a disability who requests to continue this arrangement”?
In an answer that will please employers, the EEOC states that, “[t]o the extent that an employer is permitting telework to employees because of COVID-19 and is choosing to excuse an employee from performing one or more essential functions, then the request – after the workplace reopens – to continue telework as a reasonable accommodation does not have to be granted if it requires continuing to excuse the employee from performing an essential function.”
Noting that “[t]he ADA never requires an employer to eliminate an essential function as an accommodation for an individual with a disability,” the EEOC elaborates by stating that “[t]he fact that an employer temporarily excused performance of one or more essential functions when it closed the workplace and enabled employees to telework for the purpose of protecting their safety from COVID-19, or otherwise chose to permit telework, does not mean that the employer permanently changed a job’s essential functions, that telework is always a feasible accommodation, or that it does not pose an undue hardship.”
An employer is not prohibited “from restoring all of an employee’s essential duties” when “it chooses to restore the prior work arrangement” and may evaluate “any requests for continued or new accommodations under the usual ADA rules.”
Employers, however, should understand that the remote work experience during the pandemic will be relevant when evaluating whether essential job functions can be performed through telework. According to the EEOC, the period of providing telework “could serve as a trial period that showed whether or not this employee with a disability could satisfactorily perform all essential functions while working remotely, and the employer should consider any new request [for accommodation] in light of this information.”
Thus, although allowing telework during the past several months does not mean that employers cannot restore report to the workplace requirements, it does mean that employers should consider a demonstrated ability to perform essential functions remotely when responding to requests to telework as an accommodation for a disability.
As always, employers should evaluate requests for accommodation on an individualized case-by-case basis, and an employer and an employee should engage in a “flexible, cooperative interactive process” to consider what, if any, accommodations might be needed to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.
Bob Shea is the author of this article. Bob represents clients in all areas of labor and employment law. He focuses a significant portion of his practice on alternative dispute resolution.
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