Wednesday, July 18, 2018

6th Circuit says full-time work is not an essential function of every full-time job

Is an employer required to permit a disabled full-time employee to work a reduced work schedule as a reasonable accommodation?

In Hostettler v. The College of Wooster [pdf], the 6th Circuit concluded that it depends on the specific position, and that an employer risks violating the ADA by declaring full-time work as an essential function of a position without analyzing the actual need for full-time work for that position.

Heidi Hostettler started her job as an HR Generalist at The College of Wooster while she was four-months pregnant. As she approached the end of her maternity leave and return to work, she suffered severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety. As a result, and upon the recommendation of her OB/GYN, Wooster permitted Hostettler to extend her leave by a month.

She eventually returned to work on a reduced, half-time schedule, which Wooster permitted for two months. Thereafter, Hostettler needed to submit a refreshed medical certification. That certification explained that she should continue to work half-time for two more months.

Instead, however, Wooster fired Hostettler because she was "unable to return to [her] assigned position … in a full time capacity."

The court considered whether working full-time was an essential function of Hostettler's job as an HR Generalist. If it was an essential function, the Hostettler was not otherwise qualified for her position, and loses her ADA claim. If, however, full-time work was not an essential function, then Wooster discriminated against her by firing her for not working full time.

The Court concluded that a jury should determine whether full-time work was essential to Hostettler's job, and rejected the employer's argument that full-time presence at work is always essential to every job.

[F]ull-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is. If it were otherwise, employers could refuse any accommodation that left an employee at work for fewer than 40 hours per week. That could mean denying leave for doctor’s appointments, dialysis, therapy, or anything else that requires time away from work. 

The Court further rejected Wooster's stated preference for full-time work, finding it unsubstantiated. It instead required the employer to show it why full-time work was essential to Hostettle's specific job.

Wooster may have preferred that Hostettler be in the office 40 hours a week. And it may have been more efficient and easier on the department if she were. But those are not the concerns of the ADA.… An employer cannot deny a modified work schedule as unreasonable unless the employer can show why the employee is needed on a full-time schedule; merely stating that anything less than full-time employment is per se unreasonable will not relieve an employer of its ADA responsibilities.

Thus, "on its own, however, full-time presence at work is not an essential function. An employer must tie time-and-presence requirements to some other job requirement.… Wooster must explain why Hostettler could not complete the essential functions of her job unless she was present 40 hours a week."

When presented with this issue by one of your employees, what do you do?

For starters, do not make the same mistake as Wooster, and assume that every full-time employee must be present at work 40 hours per week. Instead, if you want to deny the accommodation, build your case.

  • Are there required aspects of the job that cannot be completed in less than 40 hours a week?
  • Are there specific aspects of the job that cannot be done remotely?
  • Has the employees failed in the past in efforts to complete required tasks in less time, or while remote? 

Without answering these questions, and tying the full-time requirement to specific job requirements that will otherwise go unfulfilled or uncompleted, you will have a difficult time meeting your obligations under Hostettler and defeating an ADA claim premised on a denied modified work schedule.

* Photo by VĂ­tor de Matos on Unsplash