Monday, April 13, 2015

Some thoughts on accommodations and flexible workplaces

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past three days about the flexibility that employers afford their employees. I am part of a family with two working professional parents (one of whom travels a great deal), and two young children. If I did not have flexibility in where I perform my job, my life would become exponentially more difficult in light of my wife’ travel schedule. The reality is that technology (specifically iPhones, emails, laptops, and iPads) makes work easier. I no longer need to be tethered to my office to be productive. Yes, I enjoy coming to work. I like the camaraderie of my co-workers. I like seeing and talking to other people. I’m a social person and I like being social. But, I can write a brief, or counsel a client, from anywhere. I don’t need my office to produce. 

Last Friday, the 6th Circuit decided EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., which, according to the Court, applied “common sense” to decide that “regular on-site attendance is required for interactive jobs, and that “regular, in-person attendance is an essential function … of most jobs….” I could not disagree more. When the 6th Circuit originally decided this case one year ago, it relied on technology to determine that employers should at least consider whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation for a particular job.

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.

My main problem of the re-hearing panel’s decision is that the “common sense” it is applying is rooted in 1965, not 2015. To paraphrase John Oliver from last night, just as it is no longer acceptable to slap a female co-worker on the backside while calling her “toots,” it is no longer acceptable to assume that work must be performed at work. While I haven’t read the 1,400 page record of the Ford case to determine whether physical attendance at work was essential for this plaintiff’s job, my main critique of this decision is that it swings to needle too far to the side of inflexibility. It sets inflexibility as the rule, and telecommuting as the exception. I would flip the rule.

Telecommuting is an important benefit that promotes work/life balance for employees. It is great benefit that employers should be using to attract and retain employees for whom this benefit matters. With the state of technology in 2015, there is little reason that employer should not be doing so.