Federal Employees are protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is the Federal Employees version of the Americans with Disability Act. One of the strongest rights that law grants to federal employees is the right to receive a reasonable accommodation that will allow them to perform the essential functions of their position.
Teleworking, otherwise referred to as working from home, is an option that’s available to federal employees who may be seeking a reasonable accommodation that comes up regularly and can often be the difference between the employee’s ability to keep working and having to leave their agency to seek federal OPM disability retirement.
There are many nuances related to a request to work at home. In fact a seminal case made it clear an agency cannot reject a request for telework as a reasonable accommodation on the grounds that it’s not generally available to non-disabled employees.
This teleworking issue was raised by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the case of Blocher v. Department of Veterans Affairs, in April 2013.
In this case, a chief of health information management service requested telework as a reasonable accommodation because she was recovering from hip replacement surgery and it was easier for her to work from home.
The VA has a reasonable accommodation committee who met regularly to discuss and decide on reasonable accommodation requests. The committee denied her request because her supervisor stated that he did not believe her position as a service chief should qualify as this position was responsible for supervising workers, which needs to be done in an office setting.
The Complainant then filed a formal EEO complaint. She alleged the Department of Veterans Affairs discriminated against her because she had a disability (hip dysplasia) at the time when an agency denied her request for a reasonable accommodation.
The agency found the chief was not a qualified individual with a disability. Additionally, it said face-to-face supervision of her subordinates was an essential component of her supervisory position, and her inability to physically come to work and interact with subordinates meant she was unqualified for the position. On appeal, the EEOC found that the agency subjected her to discrimination when it denied her request for telework as a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC found that the chief was a “qualified individual with a disability.”
The EEOC took issue with the view of the chief’s supervisor that he did not believe any service chief should work from home under any circumstances. It pointed out an agency should not base its decision regarding a request for reasonable accommodation solely on the issue of whether the employee’s essential job “involves some contact and coordination with other employees.”
The EEOC pointed out it is a reasonable accommodation to modify a workplace policy. It said the reasonable accommodation committee and the supervisor had an obligation to take part in an interactive process to determine whether the chief had made a reasonable request. In this case neither complied with the obligation.
The agency also failed to demonstrate that giving the chief some telework on a temporary basis as an accommodation as she recovered from surgery would have posed an undue hardship. It concluded telework should be evaluated as a reasonable accommodation on a case-by-case basis. It can often be helpful to speak to an expert to determine whether or not your situation is the type that would be protected under federal law when it comes to your request for telework.