This issue is particularly important in disability discrimination cases where an employee is a qualified individual with a disability if he/she can perform the essential functions of a job with or without a reasonable accommodation.  Thus, a key question both during the required interactive process in determining possible accommodations as well as in litigation is what are the essential functions of the job.

Recently, the Eighth Circuit found that a rotating shift was an essential function of the plaintiff’s position.  In Kallail v. Alliant Energy Corporate Services [pdf], the employee worked as a Resource Coordinator and requested an accommodation of working 8-hour day shifts.  In her position as a Resource Coordinator, Ms. Kallail was required to work a rotating schedule, including 12-hour shifts and night shifts.   The employee suffered from diabetes and peripheral vascular disease and believed that the rotating shift caused some of her problems.  Ultimately, Alliant Energy terminated Ms. Kallail’s employment. 

In analyzing whether the rotating shift was an essential function of the position, the court noted that essential functions are fundamental duties.  In determining the essential functions of a position, the courts look at the following:  

  • employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential;
  • written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job;
  • amount of time spent on the job performing the function;
  • the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; 
  • the terms of a collective bargaining agreement;
  • the work experience of the past incumbents on the job;
  • and current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.  

Based on its review, the court found that the rotating shift was on the job description, provided enhanced experience and training by allowing the Resource Coordinators to be familiar with geographic territories in the service area, and allowed employees to receive on-the-job training by working with different employees resulting in more efficient operations.  Consequently, the court found that the plaintiff was unable to perform the essential functions of her position, with or without reasonable accommodation, and dismissed her claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The case serves as a reminder for employers to review and revise written job descriptions on a regular basis.  Having documents with such information aids human resources and other employees charged with making decisions regarding accommodations and can be utilized in subsequent litigation to support the employer’s decisions.