By Deborah Hopkins, Ann Boehm, and Bob Woods, September 1, 2020

Here’s a hypothetical reasonable accommodation case to consider:

An employee requests telework due to a medical condition, specifically because of the side effects of the medication being taken for the medical condition. The medical information provided by the health care provider states that the medication being taken causes sleepiness and precludes the employee from driving. Can additional clarification be requested from the employee’s healthcare provider to ensure that the medication being taken by the employee will not affect his ability to perform his essential functions, specifically to handle potentially private information, including personally identifiable information (PII)?

We sure love hypotheticals. Because FELTG is a training company, we can’t give specific legal advice about this scenario. But your authors got together (well, virtually anyway) to discuss some things the agency should probably consider.

The telework request

Sometimes, folks overthink these situations too much. In this time of pandemic, thousands more employees are working from home. It’s still the same work with the same duties and responsibilities, just in a different environment. The employee is responsible for properly safeguarding PII at work, so that’s still a requirement at home. Is the agency allowing other similar employees to work from home? If so, how do THEY safeguard PII? If this employee fails to safeguard PII, the agency should deal with it when it occurs and take appropriate action to hold the employee accountable.

In cases like the hypothetical above, supervisors are often concerned that they can’t keep an eye on the employee to make sure they’re getting their work done and aren’t malingering. There are ways to deal with such concerns. For example, while teleworking, the supervisor can assign projects with specific deadlines or require periodic updates by phone or email. They can also have Zoom or Skype meetings, etc. They just need to think through how they monitor work while in the office and then try to replicate that as well as possible in the virtual environment. If the employee’s production decreases or the employee doesn’t respond in a timely fashion to phone and/or email, then the supervisor just deals with that like they should in the normal workplace (i.e., follow FELTG’s performance cases outline to hold the employee accountable).

The medical request

We know from EEOC cases that assuming or speculating that a certain disability will result in a particular behavior, without any evidence or history of such behavior, can get agencies in trouble. See, e.g., Matilde M. v. SSA, EEOC Appeal No. 0120140147 (Jan.17, 2017); Smith v. Navy, EEOC Appeal No. 01A40794 (June 8, 2006); Lamb v. SSA, EEOC Appeal No. 0120103232 (Mar. 21, 2012).

In our hypothetical, drowsiness as it relates to driving is the reason for the telework reasonable accommodation request. An agency should be very careful not to read into something for which there is no evidence. Drowsiness or sleepiness does not automatically suggest other issues. (In fact, all of your authors have been groggy on the job a time or two.) Grogginess does not automatically mean an employee cannot do the job, and without a direct link to the essential functions – for example, operating machinery or driving – it can be risky to assume one cannot. Lots of medications warn against driving, but that’s a different cognitive need than getting certain types of work done.

Agencies can ask for medical information to substantiate the need for accommodation, and to help understand the functional limitations. If the agency in the hypothetical above accepted the medical information as written (employee needs to telework because they can’t drive due to the effects of medication), granted telework, and the accommodation is working and there are no problems with the employee’s performance or conduct, then why would the agency need additional medical information about the performance of essential functions based on the driving restriction alone?

The bottom line

Telework can be an effective and reasonable accommodation. Whether it’s being permitted as an accommodation or just as a workplace flexibility, supervisors need to determine how they are going to assign and monitor work and how the teleworker will maintain security and PII.

Remember, it’s the same work, just a different location. As for requesting medical information regarding an accommodation, stay focused on the critical elements of the job. Remember, an accommodation is provided to enable the employee to perform the essential elements of the job. If necessary, the employer may request the medical practitioner to answer the following:

  • Nature, severity, and duration of disability;
  • Explanation of impact of disability on and off the job;
  • Extent to which impairment(s) limit ability to perform functions of job;
  • Estimated date of full or partial recovery;
  • Medical professional’s assessment of individual’s ability to successfully perform essential functions of position;
  • Explanation as to how the particular accommodation will assist individual in performing essential functions of position.

We’ll be discussing challenges related to unseen disabilities in more detail on September 8 during the virtual training program Accommodating and Understanding Employees with Hidden Disabilities, and we also have an entire virtual class dedicated to handling employee medical information during Absence, Leave Abuse & Medical Issues Week, September 28-October 2. If reasonable accommodation requests are something you deal with, you will definitely want to join us. [email protected]

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