Wednesday, April 23, 2014

6th Circuit recognizes telecommuting as an ADA reasonable accommodation

In Core v. Champaign County Board of County Commissioners, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio opined that telecommuting (i.e., work-from-home) might be an ADA reasonable accommodation under the right circumstances, but that case did not present those circumstances. The Core court specifically noted that the 6th Circuit does not “allow disabled workers to work at home, where their productivity inevitably would be greatly reduced,” except “in the unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties at home.”

Yesterday, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., the 6th Circuit, for the first time, recognized that modern technology is making telecommuting a realistic reasonable accommodation option. The case involved an employee with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who could not drive to work or leave her desk without soiling herself. Ford declined her telecommuting request because it believed in its business judgment that her position—a buyer who acted as the intermediary between steel suppliers and stamping plants—required face-to-face interaction.

The 6th Circuit disagreed, in large part because Ford could not show that physical attendance at the place of employment was an essential function of her job.

When we first developed the principle that attendance is an essential requirement of most jobs, technology was such that the workplace and an employer’s brick-and-mortar location were synonymous. However, as technology has advanced in the intervening decades, and an ever-greater number of employers and employees utilize remote work arrangements, attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location. Instead, the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context, as it has in other areas of modern life, and recognize that the “workplace” is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties. Thus, the vital question in this case is not whether “attendance” was an essential job function for a resale buyer, but whether physical presence at the Ford facilities was truly essential.…

[W]e are not rejecting the long line of precedent recognizing predictable attendance as an essential function of most jobs.… We are merely recognizing that, given the state of modern technology, it is no longer the case that jobs suitable for telecommuting are “extraordinary” or “unusual.” … [C]ommunications technology has advanced to the point that it is no longer an “unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties from home.”

Like it or not, technology is changing our workplace by helping to evaporate walls. While telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation remains the exception, the line that separates exception from rule is shifting as technology makes work-at-home arrangements more feasible. If you want to be able to defend a workplace rule that employees work from work, and not from home, consider the following three-steps:

  • Prepare job descriptions that detail the need for time spent in the office. Distinguish one’s physical presence in the office against one’s working hours.
  • Document the cost of establishing and monitoring an effective telecommuting program.
  • If a disabled employee requests telecommuting as an accommodation, engage in a dialogue with that employee to agree upon the accommodation with which both sides can live (whether it’s telecommuting or something else).

photo credit: Jeremy Levine Design via photopin cc

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When an employee can’t return to work after an FMLA leave

The plaintiff in Demyanovich v. Cadon Plating & Coatings (6th Cir. Mar. 28, 2014) suffered from congestive heart failure. He returned from his latest FMLA leave in 2009 with a no-overtime medical restriction. The employer, however, ignored the restriction, kept assigning overtime hours, and denied an early-2010 FMLA request. Demyanovich’s doctor advised him to quit his job and apply for social security benefits. Shortly thereafter, the company terminated him for excessive absenteeism.

In the subsequent FMLA lawsuit, the employer claimed that Demyanovich could not prove him FMLA claim because he could not have returned to his job at the end of the 2010 FMLA leave, had it been granted. The court, however, disagreed:
Although there is ample evidence that Demyanovich might have had difficulty returning to work within twelve weeks of his February 23 request for FMLA leave, it is not indisputable that he would have been unable to do so. Dr. Mussani, Demyanovich’s primary physician, “advised [Demyanovich] to quit work” and seek Social Security benefits, but he did not draft any documentation stating that Demyanovich was categorically unable to continue working. We may not draw the inference, adverse to Demyanovich, that because Dr. Mussani had always cleared Demyanovich to return to work after past examinations, his advice to quit on this occasion demonstrates that Demyanovich was no longer capable of working.
According to the FMLA, employees who, at the end of the 12-week leave period, remain “unable to perform an essential function of the position because of a physical or mental condition … [have] no right to restoration to another position under the FMLA.” Thus, if Demyanovich truly could not have returned to work at the end of the FMLA leave, then he would not have a claim. In this case, the court concluded that the employer could not measure that inability prospectively, since Demyanovich presented no medical paperwork to that end.

What are the takeaway from this case?

  1. When dealing with medical issues under the FMLA, get it in writing. In this case, it appears that the employer was attempting to justify its decision based on information in learned after the fact—that Demyanovich’s doctor recommend that he quit and seek social security benefits based on a total inability to work. Had the company learned this information at the time of the termination from medical information provided by Demyanovich at that time, this case likely would have turned out differently.
  2. Don’t forget about the ADA. Just because an employee cannot return to work at the end of an exhausted FMLA leave does not mean you can always terminate the employee. Instead, you have an obligation under the ADA to explore, through the interactive process, reasonable accommodations such as temporary light duty or an unpaid leave of absence. Even if you are on solid legal ground to terminate under the FMLA, ignoring your obligations under the ADA will still buy you a lawsuit.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Would you rather hire a liar or a criminal?

According to a recent survey conducted by background-screening company EmployeeScreenIQ, resume lies are more of a deal breaker for employers than past crimes.

Of the 600 HR professionals surveyed 45 percent said that they routinely ding candidates with a criminal history on their resume, while a whopping 90 percent refuse to hire some for whom a resume lie is discovered.

Two years ago, when the EEOC announced its Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records, I expressed reservations over regulatory guidance that limited the ability of employers to use criminal histories as a disqualifying factor for certain classes of jobs. I still believe that individuals with certain criminal histories should not hold certain jobs. For example, I remain steadfast that I cannot foresee a situation where a company would ever hire a convicted murdered or sex offender a delivery person.

I would never hire anyone who lies during the hiring process. The most important trait in hiring anyone for a job is honesty. If the bond of honest breaks down between employer and employee, the breakdown of the employment relationship will quickly follow. While not all criminal convictions depict an individual as dishonest, all resume lies do. The fact that this survey shows that double the number of employers refuse to hire candidates with resumes lies versus those who truthfully reveal past crimes does not surprise me in the least.

Readers, what say you? Would you rather hire a liar or a criminal? What is more troubling to you: the applicant who lies on a resume, or an applicant who discloses a criminal history on resume? Sound off in the comments, or on Twitter @jonhyman with the hashtag #liarorcriminal.

Friday, April 18, 2014

WIRTW #317 (the “crash landing” edition)

Even though we are only in the third week of April, I am ready to declare that we have already seen the social-media #fail of 2014. From Fox News:

US Airways said it was investigating a pornographic tweet on Tuesday sent on its Twitter account in response to a customer complaint about a flight delay, which went viral on social media.

US Airways issued an apology on Monday immediately after deleting the tweeted photograph of a naked woman lying on a bed with a toy airplane between her legs, said Davien Anderson, spokesman for US Airways.

To be accurate, “between her legs” is a bit of an understatement.

Meanwhile, Jezebel reports, “It was an honest mistake. No one is getting fired.” Honest mistakes happen, both in the privacy of the workplace and in public on social media. The important lesson is how you handle it. Do you punish the employee? Or do you use the mistake as a teachable moment for all of your employees. In my experience, you get much more mileage from the latter.

Here’s the rest of what I read this week:


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage & Hour

Labor Relations

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why you need employee-invention and IP agreements

Taco Bell is defending claims by two former interns that they invented the Doritos taco nearly 20 years ago. They now want to be paid part of its billions dollars in sales. (ABC News)

The pair and their former employer will likely end up in court over who invented what, and when.

My question is whether Taco Bell required the interns to sign an “inventions” agreement. If they did, then even if the intern’s story is true, they will have little legal leg on which to stand.

A typical employee inventions agreement accomplishes the following:

  • It defines that all rights to any inventions, innovations, developments, designs, etc., related to the employer’s business, and conceived, made, or developed by the employee while working for the employer, belongs to the employer and not the employee.

  • It includes a promise that the employee will execute any documents necessary for the employer to perfect its ownership interest in any such inventions, etc.

  • It provides the employee the opportunity to list, for exclusion, any patents held, or inventions, etc., conceived prior to employment, or for specific assignment to the employer for consideration paid.

These agreements are usually part of a larger confidentiality agreement, or non-competition agreement, but also can be standalone. The point is to avoid any dispute over who created what. If you provide employees the opportunity to list existing ideas and inventions, and to promise that anything they invent while working for you is yours, and not theirs, then nobody should go loco if one of their ideas hits it big, and the employer keeps it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What happens when an HR investigation is staged … and filmed for a beer commercial?


“Do you always wash your hands after using the restroom? … Have you ever told a coworker you like her outfit? … Do you use your work computer for non-work-related activities? … Have you been using your computer to watch basketball this March?”

I don’t recommend taking an HR investigation as a practical joke in your workplace, but this ad is pretty darn entertaining.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hypothetical violations doom employer confidentiality policy

A few months ago I posted on the NLRB’s veto of a workplace confidentiality policy. Late last month, the 5th Circuit court of appeals ruled on another employer confidentiality policy, and the results should trouble employers everywhere.

At issue in Flex Frac Logistics v. NLRB was the following workplace confidentiality policy:

Employees deal with and have access to information that must stay within the Organization. Confidential Information includes, but is not limited to, information that is related to … our financial information …; [and] personnel information and documents…. No employee is permitted to share this Confidential Information outside the organization, or to remove or make copies of any Silver Eagle Logistics LLC records, reports or documents in any form, without prior management approval. Disclosure of Confidential Information could lead to termination, as well as other possible legal action.

The appellate court affirmed the NLRB’s decision that this policy infringed on the rights of employees to engage in protected concerted activity:

A “workplace rule that forb[ids] the discussion of confidential wage information between employees … patently violate[s] section 8(a)(1).” … As the NLRB noted, the list of confidential information encompasses “financial information, including costs[, which] necessarily includes wages and thereby reinforces the likely inference that the rule proscribes wage discussion with outsiders.” The confidentiality clause gives no indication that some personnel information, such as wages, is not included within its scope.

Particularly troubling is the NLRB’s summary rejection of the employer’s argument that the policy should survive because it had never interpreted or applied it to restrict employees’ Section 7 rights, such as the right to discuss wages. As the court noted, “the actual practice of employees is not determinative,” as long as one could reasonably interpret the policy as a restriction on Section 7 rights.

In other words, employers need to safeguard their policies against what-ifs and hypotheticals, a daunting task. In a passing notation, the court does note that Flex Frac’s policy failed, in part, because it did not expressly exclude “personnel information, such as wages.” Going forward, employers should consider including this carve-out in their confidentiality policies to help avoid NLRB scrutiny.

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