By Deborah J. Hopkins, January 17, 2023
If your agency has an employee who, as a reasonable accommodation (RA), teleworks three days a week, and reports to the office one day a week, you might think the agency has the right to choose which day the employee reports to the office. And, depending on the scenario, you might be right. But you might not.
Each RA case requires an individualized analysis. Failure to follow the process could result in a finding against the agency – plus potential exacerbation of the employee’s medical conditions.
In a recent EEOC decision, the complainant, who had fibromyalgia, fibromyoma, chronic pain, cancer in remission, and arthritis, received the below accommodations:
- A maxiflex work schedule;
- Three days of telework per week (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday);
- A requirement to report to the office on Thursdays; and
- Fridays off.
On Nov. 21, 2019, the complainant’s supervisor met with her and with the Reasonable Accommodation Coordinator (RAC) about revising the existing RA to:
- A compressed work schedule (10-hour days Monday – Thursday);
- Three days of telework per week (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday);
- A requirement to report to the office on Wednesdays; and
- Fridays off.
The complainant objected, explaining the change in schedule was not compatible with her medical limitations. The RAC sought additional medical documentation to support the complainant’s claim that a Thursday “in-office” day was part of her medical treatment plan.
According to the case, “The RAC’s questions included: ‘Is [Complainant] capable of reporting to the office on Wednesdays? If not, provide the specific medical need (with an explanation) that does not allow her to report to the office on this day.’”
The complainant’s physician responded on Dec. 5, 2019, informing the agency the complainant’s medical treatment plan included telework three days a week with Thursday, specifically, as her weekly “in-office” day:
The letter explained why a Thursday “in-office” day benefitted complainant in terms of managing the symptoms of her disabilities and explained how a change to her “in-office day would negatively impact her medi[c]al treatment plan.” The RAC deemed the reference to a medical treatment plan to be too vague, so around Dec. 26, 2019, the RAC sent the complainant’s physician another information request to include a “specific medical reason/need (i.e. include the specific type of medical treatment in your medical plan) that prevents [Complainant] from reporting to the office on Wednesdays.”
On Jan. 20, 2020, the complainant’s physician again responded, informing the agency the treatment plan included medication, therapy, and mandatory extended continuous periods of rest on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, in order to mitigate the complainant’s symptoms.
The documentation further stated the change to Wednesdays “is not advisable” and “would be detrimental to [Complainant’s] treatment and health” because if the schedule changed the complainant would:
- Experience medical challenges managing the symptom[s] and side effects of her medication;
- Not [be] able to have the extended period of rest without missing work;
- Encounter negative impacts managing her pain;
- Experience intensification in her sleep disturbance, fatigue; and
- See increases in additional side effects from her medication.
The RAC still deemed the physician’s response insufficient, so she again sent the Dec. 26 request for information about the specific type of treatment that would prevent the complainant from reporting on Wednesdays; neither the physician nor the complainant provided further documentation.
On Mar. 9, 2020, the complainant received a notice from her supervisor, informing her that her existing RA had been modified and that her in-office day would be Wednesdays beginning Mar. 16. The complainant requested the agency reconsider but was denied, so she appealed to the EEOC.
On appeal, the EEOC found that the Dec. 5, 2019, response from the physician “was sufficient to support Complainant maintaining Thursday as her ‘in office’ day” because the physician provided specific rationale, stating the existing treatment plan “has decreased the severity of [Complainant’s] symptoms, stabilized her condition and delayed progression of her medical condition,” and warned that a change in schedule would be “detrimental to her condition, mobility and treatment.”
The Commission also disagreed with the supervisor and RAC’s assessment that the medical documentation supported that the complainant could change her “in-office” day to Wednesday.
While the agency is permitted to ultimately choose an employee’s accommodation, the RA must be effective.
In this case, the Commission said that management’s insistence on moving the in-office day to Wednesday, which resulted in the complainant having to work the next day rather than rest, rendered her reasonable accommodation “far less effective.” In addition, when the supervisor and RAC changed the complainant’s work schedule from maxiflex to compressed, it became impossible for the complainant to “adjust her lunch break to use it in conjunction with her leave for medical appointments or adjust her start or end time to accommodate medical appointments,” which also rendered the accommodation less effective.
The Commission closed by stating, “By modifying Complainant’s long-held accommodations to make them less effective, we conclude the Agency violated its accommodation duties under the Rehabilitation Act.” Cheryl L. v. Treasury, EEOC Appeal No. 2021001710 (Sept. 26, 2022).
For more on this topic, join FELTG on Feb. 16 for the two-hour virtual training Reasonable Accommodation: Meeting Post-pandemic Challenges in Your Agency. Hopkins@FELTG.com