Working from Home as a Reasonable Accommodation
More employees in both the public and private sectors are working from home than ever before. This is of course in large part due to the ongoing COVID-19 and closure of many offices categorized as nonessential, but the seismic shift in how we conduct work is transforming how we perceive the office environment and potentially revealing new efficiencies.
Federal employees living with disabilities may well already be aware of the challenges of navigating workplaces an office environments that are often not designed with their needs and abilities in mind. For many, this extended period of telework represents a breath of fresh air, and as we look to what comes next after the pandemic ends, some might wonder if there is any means of facilitating a permanent pivot to working from home.
The good news is that qualifying employees with disabilities likely have the option and right to request teleworking as a reasonable accommodation with their federal agency. Below, we cover the relevant laws and how interested employees can explore the possibility.
What Constitutes a Reasonable Accommodation?
Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, all federal agencies of the United States government must comply with the terms of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the framework of laws that protect the rights of differently abled workers. Under these laws, federal agencies are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with qualifying disabilities.
A reasonable accommodation can and should:
- Help a prospective apply for a federal position
- Facilitate the performance of an employee’s job duties
- Allow the employee to better enjoy the opportunities that come with employment
Given these broad mandates, reasonable accommodations can take many forms in practice, including:
- Altering the physical makeup or layout of a workspace (i.e. to better allow persons with disabilities to navigate and perform job duties)
- Restructuring of job duties (including the reassignment of certain tasks a person with a disability cannot readily perform)
- Adjustment of work schedules or work location (such as moving an employee to a more accessible office)
- Extended leave or reduced schedules (including leaves permitted by the Family Medical Leave Act)
- Replacement or procurement of hardware or equipment (including specialized tools that allow persons with disabilities to more efficiently work)
- Hiring of interpreters or readers to help facilitate any necessary translations or dictations
Among these common reasonable accommodations is the reassignment of an individual with disabilities to an alternate work location. This can include the possibility of “telecommuting,” or working from home.
How Attitudes Toward Teleworking Have Changed
Long before the pandemic began, “working from home” was often considered a privilege, one that was not commonly granted in many workplaces that prioritized in-person communication. Technology has rapidly advanced, however, vastly expanding what an employee can accomplish remotely.
With the advent of seamless video teleconferencing, shared online databases, and other internet workplace tools, teleworking has emerged as a viable alternative to being physically present in a workplace. Working from home disability has even been shown to improve employee productivity and morale for some workplaces.
Given the extent of technology now available, what can be accomplished via teleworking is now often indistinguishable from what can be accomplished in-person. This phenomenon culminated in The Telework Enhancement Act, which codifies federal guidelines for providing telework options for employees with qualifying disabilities. This is an important factor when considering teleworking as a reasonable accommodation, as federal agencies can potentially reject accommodations that represent an undue hardship.
How Teleworking Qualifies as a Reasonable Accommodation
Luckily, whether teleworking is considered a reasonable accommodation is no longer up for debate as a result of the aforementioned Telework Enhancement Act. Employees with disabilities could already potentially be reassigned to an alternate work location more accommodating to their needs as a form of reasonable accommodation.
Teleworking is effectively the same practice in that it reassigns an employee to their home. This can help them avoid any complications related to daily transportation or inaccessible office spaces.
Many federal agencies have adopted teleworking policies prior to the pandemic and independent of any reasonable accommodation requirements. In other words, they have teleworking opportunities for employees with and without disabilities. Agencies with these programs in place will likely more readily, immediately, and efficiently accommodate those with disabilities requesting to work remotely. However, even if an agency does not have an existing telework program, a qualifying person with disabilities is still entitled to request the practice as a reasonable accommodation.
Potential Obstacles to Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation
It should be understood that not all jobs are practical candidates for telework. Some positions may have job responsibilities that inherently must be completed in-person at a worksite and cannot be facilitated remotely. In these situations, teleworking may not be the obvious choice for reasonable accommodation.
With that said, providing reasonable accommodation can require multiple adjustments on the part of an agency. If, for example, only a single component of a disabled person’s job responsibilities necessitates in-person work, that task could potentially be reassigned – and the disabled person’s job restructured – to accommodate telework.
If a job fundamentally and predominantly requires in-person work that can no longer readily be completed by a person with a disability, another reasonable accommodation may be to be reassigned entirely to a different but similar position. From there, the new position could potentially include telework as a more practical and reasonable accommodation.
Benefits of Teleworking for Disabled Employees
Many benefits of telework are now obvious to a great deal of the United States population. You do not have to deal with your commute, worry about getting your lunch, or suffer from office distractions.
For many persons living with disabilities, the benefits of teleworking can grow exponentially. When disabilities make mobility difficult, not having to negotiate and navigate transportation twice a day can represent an incredible boon. Disabled employees will not have to struggle to move through a workspace not necessarily designed to suit their needs. By being allowed to work in their space, on their terms, productivity and enthusiasm are likely to increase.
Even better, many federal agencies have the support of The Department of Defense’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP). This division specifically exists to support persons with disabilities who elect to telework as a reasonable accommodation by supplying and installing all of the necessary work equipment needed to conduct job responsibilities from home. CAP also facilitates the training of employees using the supplied equipment and integration into the agency’s existing systems.
We Can Help You Pursue Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation
Post COVID-19, working remotely has become a fairly accepted practice for all types of employees. Given the systems in place to support the pivot, many federal agencies are already prepared and willing to support reasonable accommodations for telework. In the unlikely event that there is no means of reasonably accommodating your telework request, you may instead be eligible for FERS disability retirement benefits.
Our federal employment lawyers at Pines Federal have over 20 years of experience assisting clients seeking reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. We are familiar with how agencies evaluate and adjudicate these requests and can advocate on your behalf. Our team understands the inherent value of working from home and can work with you to procure the reasonable accommodations you need.