In last week’s EmployNews, we discussed a growing trend of employees basing requests for remote work on mental or physical disabilities, and therefore requesting accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In some situations, the employer denies the request, asserting that the work cannot be completed from home. Last week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals gave schools some assurance that they can deny remote work or other accommodation requests from teachers on the basis that in-person teaching is an essential job function.
In De Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory School, the plaintiff was a high school English teacher who originally requested a four-week absence for hip surgery. This leave was extended for another two and a half months. As a result of complications following a second surgery, the plaintiff then requested another three-to-six-month extension of the leave. The school denied the leave extension on the basis that in-person instruction is an essential job function, and that an extended leave of absence was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The First Circuit agreed, affirming dismissal of the claim.
Although this case did not involve a request for remote work, the decision could be used by schools in responding to such accommodation requests. Under the ADA, the requested accommodation must allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their job. If in-person teaching is considered an essential function, the employer can deny the accommodation request without reaching the question of whether it presents an undue hardship to the employer.
Given widespread information about the negative effects of remote instruction on students during the pandemic, insisting on regular in-person instruction appears to be well supported. Schools should update job descriptions to include this essential function. While this reasoning may not apply to other industries, it means that for school teachers, regular class attendance can be a non-negotiable job requirement.
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