Ask an HR Expert: Are Employers Required to Honor a Health-Related Telework Request?

You may need to make an accommodation even if your company doesn't have a work-from-home policy.

By Katherine Brennan, SHRM-CP Jun 1, 2017

If an employee asks to work from home due to a medical condition, but your company doesn’t have a telework program, you may still be required to accommodate the request. The first step is to find out more information.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that covered employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities to assist them in performing the essential functions of their jobs. In its enforcement guidance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has indicated that telework arrangements may be considered such an accommodation.

When an employee requests an adjustment to his or her job, as part of the ADA’s “interactive process,” you should explore appropriate solutions with the worker. This will help you figure out if a worker meets the ADA’s definition of an individual with a disability (a person with, or regarded as having, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or a record of such an impairment). The dialogue will also help you to get recommendations on possible job modifications from the employee or health care provider.

If you determine that a worker is disabled and that telework is the only possible accommodation, your organization would, absent undue hardship, generally be obligated to honor the request, regardless of whether such a program is in place.

When determining whether an accommodation is an undue hardship and whether a telework arrangement is feasible, consider whether the employee’s essential job functions can be performed from home. Not all positions are conducive to telework. For instance, some roles require the use of equipment that cannot be installed in the home or access to tools, documents or sensitive data that must remain at the employer’s worksite. Others necessitate that employees be in a specific work location or frequently interact with customers in a way that cannot be done remotely. This is the case for food servers, nurses, cashiers and bus drivers, for example.

Reasonable accommodation under the ADA is not one size fits all. When requests arise, consider the individual’s needs as well as all possible assistance or workplace adjustments before making a decision.

Katherine Brennan, SHRM-CP, is an HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management.

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