Remote Work Revamp: ADA Concerns Surface as Companies Redefine Policies

Balancing needs, complying with law: Rethinking remote work in a world with disability rights.

Remote Work Revamp: ADA Concerns Surface as Companies Redefine Policies

The pandemic-driven boom in remote work is undergoing a major shift as companies solidify their post-pandemic policies. This transition, however, raises significant concerns regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the potential for discrimination against employees with disabilities.

Advocating for Continued Flexibility

Fueled by the demonstrated success of remote work during the pandemic, many employees, including those with disabilities, are advocating for continued flexibility. Mental health conditions, chronic illnesses, and other medical concerns are being cited as reasons for requesting remote work accommodations. Surveys show nearly 70% of employees feel that remote work improved their lives and productivity, with 40% fearing job loss if forced back to the office.

This creates a complex balancing act for companies, who must juggle employee needs with legal obligations and operational considerations.

While employers can't deny telework solely because they generally don't offer it, the ADA allows them to engage in an 'interactive process' with employees to explore alternative accommodations and assess undue hardship, clarifies Brandalyn Bickner, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) spokesperson. This process, while intended to be collaborative, raises anxieties for employee advocates.

Calls for Improved Office Education

According to Amy Epstein Gluck, a founding partner at the Washington, D.C. office of Pierson Ferdinand, employers need to proactively educate managers and HR personnel to recognize, even when unvoiced, requests for accommodations, especially regarding mental health, which often goes unnoticed. 

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen that many office jobs can be done remotely and that working remotely can be an effective accommodation for individuals with mental health issues,” Gluck says. “Employers are going to have to really educate everyone in their offices, including their managers, about mental health issues in the workplace, how to recognize requests for accommodations when it’s not obvious, that people with mental health issues need to be accommodated and that remote work may be part of that.”

The potential for legal challenges looms large. In 2021 alone, the EEOC received nearly 8,400 charges alleging disability discrimination based on mental health or substance use disorders. This number is expected to rise as companies navigate the nuances of post-pandemic work arrangements.

Key Steps for Companies

To mitigate legal risks and foster inclusivity, experts advise companies to:

  • Train managers and HR personnel on the ADA and the interactive process. Resources like the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) can provide valuable guidance.

  • Establish clear, accessible channels for employees to request accommodations. Avoid relying solely on email or internal forms; consider confidential phone lines or in-person options.

  • Engage in good faith discussions with employees, exploring alternative solutions and documenting the interactive process for transparency and accountability. Refer to the EEOC's "Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship" for further clarity.

  • Conduct periodic internal audits to assess workplace culture and identify potential bias against employees with disabilities.

The future of work will likely be a hybrid model, balancing remote and in-office arrangements. By prioritizing accommodation awareness and ensuring equal opportunity for all employees, companies can navigate this transition effectively, comply with legal requirements, and foster a more inclusive work environment.

This approach not only mitigates legal risks but also creates a competitive advantage. Studies show that remote work arrangements can boost employee morale, productivity, and talent retention, benefiting both employees and companies.

By actively adapting to the evolving landscape of disability rights and remote work, companies can build a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of ability or location.

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