As previously noted here, employers are required to provide qualified individuals who have a disability with a reasonable accommodation absent an undue hardship.  Whether working from home is a reasonable accommodation is a fact intensive analysis that should be conducted for each circumstance.

Earlier this week, a Michigan federal court dismissed the EEOC’s case against Ford Motor Company concluding that the employee’s proposal to work from home for a majority of the week was not reasonable.  In EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. [pdf], the court found that the employee, Jane Harris, was not qualified for her position as a resale buyer.  Ms. Harris suffered from irritable bowel syndrome and requested to participate in the telecommuting program or another accommodation.  As one of seven resale buyers, Ms. Harris’s position required that she ensure that her assigned specific Ford suppliers have a steady supply of steel.  Thus, she was required to regularly interact with her coworkers and contacts.  Ford produced evidence that interaction with suppliers is most effective in face to face meetings and requires that the resale buyers often visit the supplier sites.  Consequently, Ford denied her request to telecommute for up to four days per week due to her required regular interaction and the fact that her work schedule would be unpredictable.

Although Ford did not grant her requested accommodation, Ford offered Ms. Harris other possible alternatives (e.g., moving her desk closer to restroom and finding her another position which would allow for telecommuting), but Ms. Harris rejected the proposals.  When Ms. Harris’s performance declined, she filed a charge with the EEOC.  Ford subsequently put Ms. Harris on a performance enhancement plan.  However, when her performance failed to improve, Ford terminated her employment, and she filed another charge.  The EEOC then filed a lawsuit against Ford.

The court found that Ms. Harris could not perform the essential functions of her job as a resale buyer working from home.  Further, the court noted that her frequent and unpredictable absences required her coworkers to perform extra work.  Although Ford allowed other buyers to telecommute, the telecommuting was once a week and on a scheduled day.

What does this mean for employers?  With technology, telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation.  As previously noted here, many employers have instituted telecommuting policies.  Although such policies can be a factor in assessing whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation, this case highlights that not every position is a candidate for telecommuting.  Employers should analyze each position carefully.  Regardless of whether a requested accommodation of telecommuting is reasonable, employers cannot simply ignore an employee’s request for an accommodation.  Even if a request is not reasonable, employers must engage in the interactive process as Ford did in this case and offer other possible alternatives.