By Deborah Hopkins, June 14, 2017

Out of all the training classes we present here at FELTG, maybe the biggest area where we get questions, comments, complaints, and yes even tears of frustration, is the discussion of telework as a reasonable accommodation for disability. Telework is often an effective accommodation to allow someone to perform the essential functions of her job; it’s just fabulous when it works.  Sometimes, though, telework is not a good option, yet agencies are afraid to say “no” to someone who brings in a doctor’s note that says “Employee X needs to telework because of a medical condition” because they fear getting in trouble if they deny the request or ask for more information.

Does this sound familiar? If so, then it’s time to rejoice, because I have a few points to share that will help you legally deny telework as accommodation:

  1. When the employee does not have a medically-documented disability. If an employee claims to have a disability and requests telework as accommodation, that employee must provide medical documentation that says they have a physical or mental impairment that affects their ability to perform an essential function of the job. The employee must also explain to the agency how the accommodation (in this case, telework) would allow him to perform that essential function from home. If the person does not provide medical documentation, then you do NOT have to grant him telework because he is NOT qualified. In other words, if he refuses to provide specific medical documentation (diagnosis, prognosis, functional limitations), then he waives his entitlement to the reasonable accommodation process. See Complainant v. DLA, EEOC Appeal No. 0120114081 (2013) (employee’s medical documentation was vague and did not describe the limitations on her essential functions, so the agency was not obligated to accommodate her request). No documentation, no disability. No disability, no accommodation.
  2. When telework is not an effective accommodation. Some jobs can’t be done from home because the essential functions require the person to be onsite. In those cases, telework is not an effective accommodation and should not be granted. See Humphries v. Navy, EEOC Appeal No. 0120113552 (2013) (telework was not an effective accommodation because face-to-face interaction with clients was an essential function of the employee’s job); Gemmill v. FAA, EEOC Appeal No. 0120072201 (2009) (telework was not an effective accommodation because the employee needed to access computer systems and confidential documents that were kept securely at the agency facility). If an essential function of the job requires the employee to be at work to do something, and the employee can’t be at work to do the thing, and no accommodation at work will allow the employee to do the thing, the employee is not a qualified individual.
  3. When an employee has a performance problem. Some employees just can’t be successful while teleworking. If an employee is having performance problems in the workplace with direct supervision, you can easily see how granting telework, where the employee does not have direct supervision, might make that performance issue even worse. See Yeargins v. HUD, EEOC Petition No. 0320100021 (2010) (agency properly denied telework as accommodation because the employee, an EEO specialist, lacked sufficient knowledge of civil rights laws to work independently). EEOC has also upheld agency denials of telework as accommodation because of past performance issues that occurred while the employee was teleworking. See Robinson v. DOE, 586 F.3d 683 (9th Cir. 2009) (agency properly denied telework as accommodation after the employee demonstrated an inability to satisfactorily perform her job while teleworking; in 477 hours of telework the employee only completed a half-page document work product).
  4. When another accommodation is effective. More good news: the agency, and not the employee, gets to choose the accommodation, as long as it is effective. See, e.g., Don S. v. BOP, EEOC Appeal No. 0120141175 (2016). Sure, a lot of employees request telework as accommodation, but if the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with an accommodation in the workplace, the agency has fulfilled its obligation and is not required to grant telework. See Complainant v. Army, EEOC Appeal No. 0120122847 (2014) (though the employee requested telework, the agency effectively accommodated her disabilities at work by providing her with a wheelchair, a special parking spot, and a change in minor job duties she could perform within her medical restrictions); Dennis v. Department of Education, EEOC Appeal No. 0120090193 (2010) (an enclosed work area was reasonable accommodation for an employee with perfume allergies); Gilbertz v. CDC, EEOC Appeal No. 0120110026 (2012) (providing the employee with a quieter work area was an effective accommodation for the employee’s hearing problem).

Now that you know there are times you can deny telework as accommodation, we warn you not to go too overboard with your Telework Denied stamp. There are few things to keep in mind:

  1. Telework does not have to be all or nothing. In many cases, telework is an effective accommodation some of the time. If an employee has a job that requires some contact with customers onsite, but other essential functions can be done at home, granting a few hours of telework per week is a reasonable accommodation. See Petzer v. Department of Defense, EEOC Appeal No. 01A50812 (2006) (sixteen hours of telework per week was an appropriate accommodation because the employee needed the remainder of the workweek to access databases that were only available at the agency); Skarica v. DHS, EEOC Appeal No. 0120073399 (2010) (telework for two hours per day was an effective accommodation because it permitted the employee to use his own private restroom to self-administer a catheter for his medical condition).
  2. Telework as reasonable accommodation falls outside general agency telework policies. Telework as reasonable accommodation, in essence, trumps your agency’s general telework policy. For example, if your telework policy says employees are only eligible for telework after they complete a probationary period, but you have a probationary employee who requests telework as disability accommodation, you can’t just say no because he’s a probationer and the policy prohibits him from telework; you have to consider whether telework is an effective accommodation. If there is no other accommodation available, and telework will allow him to perform the essential functions of his job, then you must grant him telework as an accommodation. EEOC Fact Sheet: Work at Home/Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation. See also Dahlman v. CPSC, EEOC Appeal No. 0120073190 (2010) (agency permitted an exception to its telework policy and allowed a new employee to telework one day per week if, after 30 days, she demonstrated her ability to work independently).
  3. The agency’s obligation is to accommodate the qualified employee and nobody else. Only qualified individuals with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodation. An agency does not have an obligation to accommodate a non-disabled employee who requests telework so she can better take care of a family member who has a disability. See Key-Scott v. USUS, EEOC Appeal No. 0120100193 (2012) (Agency did not violate the law when it denied an employee’s request for telework so she could take better care of her disabled son).

Note: please keep in mind that if no other accommodation except telework is effective, a conservative approach that will check the “good faith” box might be to grant the employee a 30-day Telework Trial to see if the employee is capable of successful performance while working from home. With the recent decisions coming out of the EEOC, you just might want to show that you did this before you use that Telework Denied stamp.

There’s lots more on this topic (including what your obligations are in accommodating a disabled employee’s commute) next week during the 90-minute webinar Telework and Leave as Reasonable Accommodation, so if you’re interested please sign up. Hopkins@FELTG.com

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