A recent decision from a federal appeals court provides guidance on the different ways employers must reasonably accommodate a worker’s disability.
In that case, a clinical dietitian at a hospital became legally blind, which her employer accommodated with special magnifying equipment.
Unfortunately the worker, Joan Unrein, lived 60 miles away, couldn’t drive and had trouble securing reliable transit, so the hospital further accommodated her with a flexible schedule that included limitations to ensure it didn’t impact patient care or burden coworkers.
After 15 months, Unrein’s performance apparently had declined and the hospital opted to end the flexible scheduling. She asked to telecommute full-time instead but went on medical leave while her request was pending. Seven months later, she was approved for long-term disability benefits and the hospital terminated her employment.
Unrein then sued the hospital, claiming it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate her disability. But first a trial court and then the federal appeals court determined that being at work on a predictable schedule was an essential job function under the circumstances, where Unrein’s job involved close patient contact.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that an employer can demand that every worker be present in person, on a predictable schedule, no matter what. If an employee asks to work remotely because of a medical issue, companies still need to determine in an interactive process whether such accommodation would be reasonable. This is the type of thing for which an employment lawyer can provide useful counsel.