In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home has become the new normal for many employees. But many businesses are also pushing to return to normal, even in areas where the outbreak still isn’t contained.
Many workers are facing increasing pressure to return to work, even when it isn’t safe. Those with pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications, and those living with family members at higher risk, are facing especially difficult choices.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures that employers make reasonable accommodations for people with qualifying disabilities.
Here are answers to a few common questions about working from home as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA—especially in the time of COVID-19.
Does working from home qualify as a “reasonable accommodation”?
A reasonable accommodation under the ADA can be anything an employer does to make work accessible for an employee with a disability.This may involve adjustments to a workstation, additional tools or software, scheduling adjustments, or changes made to a facility to make it more accessible.Working from home can also be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Reasons you might reasonably request a work-from-home situation include:
– Your disability makes it hard to commute.
– There’s limited access to handicapped-accessible parking at your workplace.
– Your worksite or workstation can’t be modified to accommodate you.
– Exposure to chemicals or other irritants.
– A lack of private places to take care of personal or medical needs.
– Exposure to bacteria and viruses.
Does your employer have to let you work from home?
No. Even if working from home is medically necessary, your employer does not have to offer it if it would constitute an undue burden for them—or if your job can’t be done from home. Some guidelines for when employers may be required to offer telework as a reasonable accommodation include:
When other employees are allowed to work from home. If other employees in similar jobs are allowed to work from home—as a benefit or privilege, for instance—those with disabilities shouldn’t be held to a different standard.
When the amount of time you request is feasible. The amount of time you need to work from home may make a difference. Are you suggesting working at home a few days a week, or all the time? Depending on the nature of your job, your employer may not be able to allow you to work from home permanently—but several days a week is doable.
When your essential job functions can be performed at home. In general, the employer does not have to offer telework as a reasonable accommodation if you physically can’t do the job at home. However, some of your duties may be more adaptable than others to a work-from-home situation, and your employer might offer you a partial-telework situation where you take care of those duties at home.
When you can access everything you need at home. If all you need to do your job is a laptop and Internet connection, it may be easy for your employer to grant your request. But if you need special equipment or access to proprietary, protected information to do your job, it may not be possible.
Your employer may provide some equipment or make some upgrades to your home office as part of a reasonable accommodation. However, the rules on requiring this are usually decided case-by-case. When there’s no other preferable accommodation. Your employer doesn’t have to let you work from home if there’s a way to accommodate your disability at the workplace, and it prefers to keep you on-site. According to the EEOC, if there’s more than one possible accommodation, your preferences should be given priority—but your employer has the final say.
What about telecommuting in the time of COVID?
Many employers that usually don’t allow telework have been allowing it as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic. But what happens when your employer is reopening, and you want to keep working from home?The employer doesn’t have to grant employees with disabilities the right to continue teleworking as a reasonable accommodation after public health requirements are lifted.
However, employees are still allowed to request telework accommodations under the ADA, and your employer may still grant them based on your vulnerability to COVID-19. If there is another type of effective accommodation that doesn’t involve telework, however, your employer can decide to offer you that instead.
Such accommodations that provide added protection from coronavirus infection may include Plexiglas barriers, offices and workstations spaced over six feet apart, designated one-way aisles, occupancy limits in buildings, or access to PPE.
The issues are nuanced and confusing, and depend on the worker’s specific situation and the particulars of their job. If you’re at high risk for COVID-19 complications and concerned about your period of telework ending, a knowledgeable employment attorney can help you determine your rights and options.