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Workplace Odors Can Provide Basis for Telecommuting Arrangement

    Client Alerts
  • July 28, 2017

As technology makes it more possible for employees to work from remote locations, employers are increasingly faced with requests from employees to work from home. When these requests are based on medical reasons, the employer may have to consider such measures as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 12, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit in federal district court in North Carolina, on behalf of an employee who claims she was denied a telecommuting arrangement needed to deal with her sensitivity to workplace odors.

In EEOC v. Advanced Home Care, the EEOC alleges that the plaintiff’s asthma and COPD conditions are aggravated by her exposure to fragrances and other odors present in the employer’s call center. The EEOC’s press release accompanying the suit claims that employers are legally obligated to provide telecommuting options to disabled employees unless they can demonstrate an undue hardship. The suit claims that there are no business reasons why the plaintiff cannot effectively work from home.

Federal courts have not been as accepting of telecommuting arrangements as the EEOC. Some courts have considered physical attendance to be an essential function of the job. Many employer have recently begun curtailing telecommuting arrangements in the non-ADA context over concerns that employees working from home do not provide the collaborative teamwork benefits derived from people who work together on a consistent basis.

While technological impediments to telecommuting may have diminished in recent years, employers can still argue that the arrangements do not result in the employee performing the essential functions of his or her job. If accurate, these teamwork expectations should be included in written job descriptions and employee evaluation criteria. Any decision to deny a requested medical homework accommodation should be accompanied by documentation explaining the business basis for the decision.