Employees seeking accommodations for medical conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act often request modified work schedules. In some cases, the employee presents medical information indicating an ability only to work a reduced schedule. The employer’s initial reaction may be that the job is full-time, and that anything less than this will not allow the employee to accomplish required tasks. A new decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals cautions employers about making this judgment without careful review of the actual impact of the reduced schedule on the job.
In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, the plaintiff suffered from severe post-partum depression and separation anxiety. She provided her employer with doctor’s information indicating that she could only work part-time in her HR generalist position. After returning from FMLA leave, the employer accommodated this request for a number of months but eventually terminated the plaintiff based on her inability to return to a full-time work schedule. She sued claiming failure to accommodate under the ADA. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the basis that the plaintiff was not able to perform the essential functions of her job on a part-time basis.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed this decision and remanded the case for jury trial. In its decision, the court stated that the employer’s assertion that the job required a full-time presence was insufficient to merit summary judgment. The plaintiff claimed that she could accomplish all necessary job tasks through part-time work and presented performance reviews that did not note deficiencies during the part-time accommodation provided to her. The employer’s supervisor’s testimony about being overwhelmed by the additional burdens placed on her due to the plaintiff’s absence was not sufficient to overcome the court’s conclusion that the question of the need for full-time work must be answered by a jury.
This decision is troubling for employers because it indicates courts’ unwillingness to defer to their judgment about whether a job requires full-time work. For some jobs, it may be relatively easy to show the need for the employee to be at work full-time. For example, a receptionist needs to be at work to greet visitors, and a machine operator needs to be at work to run the machine throughout her shift. However, many jobs are evaluated based on tasks accomplished and not time worked. As a result, employers may want to consider modifying job descriptions to demonstrate the need for full-time work. This could be done through a time budget that ties required job tasks to the estimated time each week necessary to accomplish those tasks.
Even in situations where employers take steps to establish the need for full-time work, requests by disabled employees for modified work schedules should not be automatically rejected. The employer should use the ADA interactive process to review and establish documented reasons why such requests can or cannot be granted based on the specific needs of that position.