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Disabled Worker's Telecommuting Lawsuit Can Proceed

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on April 24, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been allowed to proceed in its lawsuit against Ford Motor Company for denying a disabled worker's request to telecommute.

The EEOC sued Ford on behalf of Jane Harris, a resale steel buyer at the company, for not reasonably accommodating her under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to Job Mouse.

While the EEOC's case was unsuccessful in a lower court, a federal appeals court is giving it another chance to litigate.

The Lawsuit

The lawsuit against Ford centers on the popular workplace issue of telecommuting. Harris worked as a resale steel buyer whose primary job functions required telephone and computer contact with coworkers and suppliers. She allegedly also suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

According to Job Mouse, Ford's policy allows employees to telecommute up to four days a week, but when Harris requested those telecommuting days in order to accommodate her illness, she was denied. Harris asserts that Ford retaliated against her after she filed a claim with the EEOC.

The lower court found that working in the office is an "essential function" of Harris's job and that Harris was not a qualified individual under the ADA. After appealing the lower court decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is allowing the EEOC to proceed and suggested that employers should recognize that the workplace is anywhere an employee can perform job duties.

Will the Lawsuit Impact Small Businesses?

While Ford is a huge corporation, the impact of this lawsuit should be considered by small business owners. Companies with 15 or more employees must provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities unless it results in undue hardship on their businesses.

If your company has a telecommuting policy, make sure that it's applied equally. If you allow employees to telecommute three times a week, make sure that all employees get the same opportunity.

Some may feel that telecommuting hinders productivity. But if you're going to revoke an employee's telecommuting privileges, make sure you have the procedure for doing so in writing and made available to your staff. This way everyone is aware of the protocols and it can protect you from potential discrimination lawsuits.

The resolution of Harris' telecommuting conflict will likely be decided by a jury, according to Job Mouse.

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