4 Takeaways As EEOC Eyes Telework In The COVID Era

By: Anne Cullen

Law360 (September 9, 2021, 6:36 PM EDT) — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s first disability accommodation lawsuit tied to the pandemic sheds light on how businesses can handle the ongoing surge in telework requests without violating anti-discrimination law, experts say.

In the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, the workplace bias watchdog said a Denmark-based facilities company illegally rejected a telework request from an employee whose lung disease put her at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

The agency accused ISS Facility Services of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to let former company health and safety manager Ronisha Moncrief work from home two days a week in mid-2020. Moncrief has obstructive lung disease, which places her at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, according to the agency’s complaint.

The case marks the first time the agency has taken a company to court over a pandemic-related request for an accommodation under the ADA, and experts say company leaders and their legal counsel should be following the proceedings closely.

“I think this is one that all employment lawyers should be watching to see how this all plays out,” said disability law expert Jonathan Mook of DiMuroGinsberg PC. “It may well end up as a template for litigating these kinds of cases.”

The lawsuit offers employers a blueprint for steering clear of disability discrimination as they continue to handle employees’ telework requests, experts said.

“This is one to watch because it will very likely — if it ends up making law, as opposed to being resolved early — set the stage for how far an employer may need to flex when it comes to work from home,” said Littler Mendelson PC shareholder Michelle Barrett Falconer, who co-chairs the firm’s leaves of absence and disability accommodation practice group. While the case is just getting started, here are four things employers can learn from the legal

Claims Over Denied Telework Abound
The allegations in the EEOC’s new lawsuit are not uncommon, and experts said the agency’s intervention in this space indicates that more suits with these types of claims will surface, both from the agency and private litigants.

“There’s going to be an avalanche of these types of cases as employers start bringing employees back to work physically at the worksite,” Mook said. Plus, he added, more claims will land in federal courts as they percolate through the EEOC’s administrative process from recall efforts that started last year.

His prediction is backed up by a recent survey from management-side firm Fisher Phillips, which found there’s been a general trend of increased litigation around the pandemic during the summer, with claims surrounding remote work and leave making up about a third of the total.

The firm also forecasted a steady increase in COVID-19 lawsuits filed by employees across the country. Mook said the litigation also makes clear that this is a space the agency is eyeing closely and
could crack down on.

“The EEOC is sending a signal that they’re serious about these cases, and they’re going to start taking a hard look at employers taking the position that employees who have disabling conditions no longer can continue working at home,” he said.

An EEOC spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit or whether more similar suits were in the pike, but told Law360 on Thursday that “the COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis with immense civil rights implications.”

“The economic fallout is disproportionately affecting vulnerable workers, including those with disabilities, and has serious workplace implications,” said agency spokesperson Christine Saah Nazer. “Employers must remain vigilant in ensuring that they maintain a discrimination-free workplace.”

If Recalling Workers, Have a Good Reason Employment lawyers said the lawsuit reminds businesses that they need to have a solid rationale for recalling their workers from a remote arrangement if their job doesn’t require them to be
physically on-site.

“It’s a good warning to employers to be careful about flat rules about requiring people to come back to the office,” said Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete LLP partner Robin E. Shea. In the agency’s lawsuit, it argued that Moncrief had a legitimate basis to keep clocking in from home and had provided documents to ISS Facility Services supporting her reasoning.

She offered documentation to the company showing she needed the accommodation because her severe pulmonary disease placed her at a high-risk for contracting COVID-19, according to the lawsuit. When she was on-site, Moncrief often had close contact with colleagues, sometimes sharing a desk with co-workers, the agency said.

The agency also noted that working from home helped Moncrief manage her condition, but the company rejected her request to work from home two days a week. While ISS Facility Services has not yet responded to the lawsuit and did not respond to multiple requests for comment, experts said the case shows that it’s crucial company leaders have a solid defense for denying a disabled worker’s petition to telework.

“It does confirm what we’ve been saying all along, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for employers to justify no further telework,” said Littler’s Falconer. Calling workers back in because that’s how things used to be is not a good enough reason; company leaders should have a well-thought-out, documented rationale for why employees need
to return.

“They may have reasons,” Falconer said. “But the idea of, we just want everybody in the office, is not going to be an argument that will easily win the day.”

Consider Pandemic Experience in Analysis
The suit also serves as a reminder that company leaders who had everyone clock in from home at some point in the pandemic should take into consideration how their workers fared during this period when they evaluate requests to continue the arrangement, experts said.

The EEOC said in its lawsuit that Moncrief had worked from home four days per week after the U.S. first shut down due to COVID-19 in early 2020, but was later denied a similar, pared-down arrangement when the company sought to recall some of its workforce.

Two months after she asked to continue a partially remote arrangement, she was sacked for purported performance issues, according to the complaint, though the agency also noted that in the months leading up to her firing, Moncrief had performed well for the company, increasing employee training facilitywide.

The allegations may indicate that Moncrief had successfully completed her work during the initial telework period, something the agency has advised should be taken into consideration when evaluating continued remote work requests.

Guidance the EEOC put out a year ago said pandemic telework experiences can serve as a “trial period that showed whether or not this employee with a disability could satisfactorily perform all essential functions while working remotely,” and companies “should consider any new requests in light of this information.”

DiMuroGinsberg’s Mook said this week’s lawsuit indicates that the agency wants employers to heed this advice.

“The signal they’re sending is employers need to be careful,” he said. “It isn’t the old way of operating in terms of telework as a reasonable accommodation.”

Back to Basics
However, despite the use of potential new factors in the calculus, Jackson Lewis PC principal Jenifer Bologna said this case makes clear to her that company leaders need to ensure they’re handling reasonable accommodation requests following the traditional, fact-specific process.

“Employers should be evaluating claims the way they would any other request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and I think that’s really the important takeaway,” said Bologna, who specializes in disability and leave management issues.

“When it comes to requests for accommodations, the standard rules apply,” she said. The agency’s longstanding guidance on evaluating an accommodation request starts with a discussion on the nature of a worker’s disability and how it limits their ability to do their job.

The EEOC’s running bulletin on best practices for companies balancing pandemic issues with the needs of disabled workers reiterates the standard rules. In it, the agency has laid out a list of discussion items that employers should run through with an employee when evaluating the viability of a remote work arrangement.

It’s important to understand how the worker’s disability limits their ability to come into the office, how telework could help the problem, whether another arrangement could be the solution and if the worker can get their fundamental job duties done while at home, according to the agency’s guidance.

Bologna said employers need to make sure their conversations follow this blueprint. “Each situation is different, but it’s truly back to basics,” she said. “There is so much new with COVID, so many new concepts, but this is a circle back to our traditional accommodation process.”

— Additional reporting by Amanda Ottaway. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.