In a landmark ruling, a federal appeals court has decreed that, depending on the circumstances, employers may have to provide an accommodation — such as working at home — for an employee who has a difficult commute.
In the case — Nixon-Tinkelman v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Health & Mental Hygiene — a municipal employee who was suffering from several ailments announced to her employer that she couldn’t reasonably make the over-60-minute commute to her job via public transportation, and she asked that her employer provide some sort of accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The employer quickly decided that “commuting” wasn’t part of her job description and thus she wasn’t eligible for an ADA accommodation. She was ordered to make the commute or be fired. She sued, arguing that commuting does fall under the ADA.
The case was tossed out by a district court, but the federal appeals court told the district court to go back and analyze whether the company might be able to accommodate the request by, for instance,
- transferring the employee to a closer location
- allowing the employee to work from home, or
- providing the employee with a car or parking permit.
The court did note that the employer should “consider” those and other accommodations, according the resources of the employer. In other words, the bigger the employer, the broader the range of reasonable accommodations.
What’s it mean? Certainly, there’s no hard-and-fast rule that employers must provide a commuting accommodation, nor would all accommodations be reasonable. For example, it’s less likely that someone in a manufacturing job could work at home. However, the court’s decision does send a warning that employers shouldn’t simply dismiss accommodation claims based on long or difficult commutes by an employee suffering from health problems or a disability.