“You have to show up for work—it’s a part of your job.” Attendance at the workplace is an essential work function in an ADA case. But is it really anymore? With technology, some would argue that many jobs can be done from anywhere, and employees (particularly disabled employees) are more and more seeking to work from home. The Sixth Circuit addressed this issue recently in the decision of Hostettler v. College of Wooster.

Alternative Work Schedule

Heidi Hostettler worked in the HR department of the College of Wooster. She was four months pregnant when she took the job, and the told her that they would allow her 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, even though she didn’t qualify for it under the FMLA due to her short time of service. Her HR position was full-time, and Ms. Hostettler’s duties included performance-improvement plans, recruiting new hires, and designing training programs.

After the birth of her child and her 12 weeks of leave, Ms. Hostettler presented a note from her doctor stating that she had postpartum depression and one of the worst cases of separation anxiety her doctor had ever seen. The doctor suggested a return to work on a part-time basis for maybe a month or two. The college said okay, and Ms. Hostettler began working half days, but she had severe panic attacks if she had to work much later than noon. However, she returned emails from home and performed other work activities while away from the office.

There were disputes about whether the modified schedule was working. Several employees (through affidavits) said that there were no problems with Ms. Hostettler working part-time and from home. During this time, Ms. Hostettler got her first annual evaluation that indicated she was doing a good job and did not mention a problem with her reduced schedule. However, the college said the schedule was putting a strain on the rest of the HR Department. After several months, Ms. Hostettler submitted a new certification from her doctor that said she should continue to work part-time for at least several months.

After that latest certification, the college terminated Ms. Hostettler citing that she was unable to return to her assigned position of HR Generalist in a full-time capacity. A few months later, the college hired a male replacement. Ms. Hostettler sued for violations of the ADA and FMLA and for sex discrimination. The college moved for summary judgment stating that since the position considered full-time work as an essential function, and Ms. Hostettler couldn’t do that, that she was not a qualified individual under the ADA. The lack of being a qualified individual for the position also supported dismissal for the other claims. Ms. Hostettler appealed.

Sixth Circuit Analysis

The Sixth Circuit focused on the fact that the college admitted that the sole reason it fired Ms. Hostettler was because it could no longer accommodate her modified schedule. The court noted that the standard for her being qualified is that she can perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation. The court pointed out that a job function is only essential if it is a core job duty—one that would fundamentally alter the position if it was removed. This analysis has to be done on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, Ms. Hostettler submitted evidence that she had satisfied all the core tasks of her position—even when she was only at her office for half days. She also submitted an affidavit from a co-worker who noted that there were no problems during Ms. Hostettler’s time in the position and that she completed all her work in a timely manner. Ms. Hostettler also showed that even her supervisor gave her a good review while she was working the part-time schedule. The court did note that there was evidence presented to the contrary —some projects had “dropped through the cracks” while Ms. Hostettler was working part-time. Another apparent dispute of fact was that while the college said it talked to Ms. Hostettler about the need for her to be at work full-time, she denied that series of discussions had taken place.

The Sixth Circuit held that full-time presence at work is not, on its own, an essential function. Time and presence requirements must be tied to some other job requirement. The court distinguished cases where presence at the workplace was considered an essential function by showing that in those cases, the person had to physically be at the worksite to complete the job. Instead, the court felt that this case was more like other instances where an employee could complete the essential functions while working remotely. According to the court, “full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says it is.” In the end, the court reversed the summary judgment, finding that

“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.”

Is Attendance an Essential Function?

While this case probably will soften the edges around some accommodation requests to work from home, it doesn’t automatically preclude an employer from claiming that full-time presence at the workplace is an essential job function.

  • Jobs where the work can only be performed at the job site—such as construction, manufacturing, call centers, etc.—-will not likely be affected.
  • Office work and sales jobs where technology may allow an employee to conduct work from other locations, or on other schedules, may be affected.

This decision should inspire employers to re-examine job descriptions and determine what sort of functions they believe can only be done at the job site. Those descriptions need to be detailed and supportable. Finally, remember that one size does not fit all, and every request has to be assessed on its own. You cannot deny an employee’s modified or work-from-home schedule because no one else has such a schedule. Each request must have a separate, well-documented interactive process.