A pending federal appeals court case is the latest to highlight the challenges employers face when considering accommodation requests from an employee with a medical condition. As we have written before, leave and accommodation requests present some of the most difficult HR issues for employers. One particular challenge when it comes to accommodation requests is that there is no bright line test to determine whether a requested accommodation is reasonable, because the essential functions of one job can be quite different from the essential functions of another. As has often been said, there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to a reasonable accommodation analysis.
In this recent case, Yochim v. Carson, Elisa Yochim, who worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), claimed in the trial court that the agency failed to reasonably accommodate her request to work from home full time after undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Yochim asked to work from home so that she could engage in physical therapy as part of her recovery. After losing in the lower court, she appealed her case to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Yochim had worked at HUD since 1989, most recently serving as a senior lawyer at the agency. Prior to her surgery, she had already been working from home two days per week consistent with the agency’s telecommuting policy (which allowed up to three days). However, the HUD general counsel’s office where she worked was restructured before her surgery to encourage employees to be in the office more often, in order to cross-train with other employees and to become more knowledgeable in other areas of law that the department needed to address.
After her surgery and a difficult recovery, Yochim asked to work from home full time for several months. That request was rejected by the agency, but she was offered other accommodations that would have required her to be in the office at least part of the work week. For example, she was offered the opportunity to work four 10-hour days, which would have included working some of that time from home and the opportunity to commute to the office outside of the rush-hour period. Another agency proposal was for her to work from home for three days per week. There appears not to have been any allegation that the agency did not participate in the interactive process that is required once an employee requests an accommodation.
Each of the agency’s proposed accommodations was rejected by Yochim, who then used up her remaining sick leave and retired early.
The case presents an interesting issue about working from home as a requested accommodation. In many cases, the issue that employers and the courts struggle with is whether working from home is a reasonable accommodation at all based on the employee’s duties and responsibilities. Here, though, the employee was already allowed to work from home two days per week (and the agency offered three days), with the employee asking for an accommodation to work from home five days per week for several months.
Therefore, the court has to determine whether working from home for more than the permitted three days per week is unreasonable. Another wrinkle is that the employee’s department had only recently restructured its work-from-home policy to expect employees to be in the office more frequently. It will be instructive to see how the court considers what amount of attendance is an essential function of the HUD attorney’s job, whether allowing an employee to work from home up to three days a week undercuts the argument that attendance is essential, and whether working from home for five days per week instead of three creates an undue hardship on the employer.
Employers (and courts) continue to struggle with issues surrounding requests to accommodate a medical disability. The Yochim v. Carson case is worth watching to see how the nuances of requests involving an employee who is already allowed to work from home, but who asks for more time out of the office, are addressed and resolved.