Is Full-Time Work Truly an Essential Function
Posted: November 30, 2023
A supervisor has worked full-time (at least 40-hour weeks) on the evening shift for many years. Then, she is diagnosed with a disability and takes leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
When the leave expired, she requested (and the company approved) a temporary accommodation allowing her to work part-time and partly from home for several months, even though the company did not employ any other part-time employees. The company even extended the accommodation upon request a few times but eventually denied the request and terminated her employment.
The employee claims that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to continue to accommodate her with part-time work. How can the employer successfully defend the claim and convince the court that the employee cannot perform the job's essential functions because her position is full-time?
We turn to Geter v. Schneider National Carriers out of the Eleventh Circuit (Georgia) for the answer.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability. A "qualified individual" can perform the job's essential functions with or without accommodation. But the accommodation must be reasonable, i.e., enabling the employee to perform the job's essential functions.
Is working full-time essential?
The employer's judgment is an important factor. A job description may be the best evidence. But even if it does not explicitly state that the position is full-time, there may be other indicia. For example, in the Eleventh Circuit decision, the job description stated that the position was "Exempt (Salaried)," and the plaintiff's offer letter explicitly characterized the position as "[f]ull time; 40 hours per week." Also, the plaintiff testified that she knew the position was full-time when the company hired her. The plaintiff's supervisor also testified that full-time work was essential.
But how does the company temporarily relaxing the full-time requirements impact the analysis here? Not much.
The Geter acknowledged that other employees had to cover the shifts she missed, had more work, and had to work harder due to her absence. The burdens her part-time schedule caused other employees to bear weighed in the defendant's favor.
But what if the defendant got by temporarily while the plaintiff worked part-time? The defendant successfully argued that the previous accommodation exceeded what the law required, and the decision to end the temporary accommodation does not violate the ADA.
Unfortunately, as with so many other situations, there is no one-answer-fits-all solution. Whether full-time work is an essential function depends on the position. For example, a company may need to permit part-time work, e.g., where the employer has part-time jobs readily available. It is a fact-intensive analysis.
However, if a job is genuinely full-time, an employer never needs to eliminate that essential function.
Posted In: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); Reasonable Accommodation
Want to know more? Read the full article by Eric B. Meyer at The Employer Handbook