If They Only Knew How to Leverage the ADA to Fight RTO Mandates

TASA ID: 22108

Many employees are unaware that they can leverage the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to request work-from-home (WFH) accommodations based on mental health conditions. This knowledge gap has the potential to reshape the "Return to Office" (RTO) landscape, creating both opportunities and challenges for employees and employers alike.

RTO Mandates and the ADA

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, including mental health conditions. Keith Sonderling, Commissioner at the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), told me about the importance of understanding these legal protections. "Employers must engage in an interactive process with employees who request accommodations for mental health conditions," says Sonderling. "If an employee is diagnosed with a mental health issue, the employer is obligated to consider accommodations, which could include remote work."

During the pandemic, many employees experienced the benefits of working from home, including increased productivity and better work-life balance. As Sonderling points out, there is no inherent legal right to remote work. However, the EEOC has issued recent guidance about how the right to work remotely becomes protected under the ADA when it is a reasonable accommodation for a disability.

Brandalyn Bickner, spokesperson for the EEOC, underscored in the Fall of 2023 that under the ADA, the mandate for “reasonable accommodation” encompasses “modifying workplace policies.” This could entail employers waiving certain eligibility criteria or adjusting telework programs to facilitate remote work for employees with disabilities.

Moreover, the EEOC is showing its teeth. In a landmark legal settlement, ISS Facility Services, Inc. agreed to a $47,500 payment to resolve an EEOC complaint alleging ADA violations. The case centered on the company's refusal to permit a disabled employee to continue part-time remote work. In another example, the EEOC filed a complaint against a Georgia company for terminating a marketing manager who had sought to work remotely three days a week to manage her anxiety.

ADA Awareness Can Shift RTO Mandate Dynamics

Despite the clear legal framework, few employees are aware of their rights under the ADA. This lack of awareness means that many may not realize they can request remote work as an accommodation for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. If more employees were informed, the current RTO dynamics could shift dramatically.

To successfully claim a WFH accommodation, employees need a formal diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional. This diagnosis must indicate that remote work is necessary for managing their condition. Sonderling explains, "The ADA protects employees with mental health conditions, but it requires a legitimate diagnosis and a documented need for the accommodation." Once an employee provides documentation, employers must engage in an interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation, which might include full or part-time remote work.

As a consultant specializing in RTO and hybrid work, I've observed firsthand the concerns of business leaders regarding this issue. Many employers are eager to bring employees back to the office, and I’ve advised my clients on how to do so for the sake of fostering collaboration and mutual trust. However, they must navigate the legal requirements and potential influx of accommodation requests, especially as the issues surrounding mental health accommodation and ADA become more widely known.

Sonderling emphasizes the importance of training for managers and HR professionals to handle these requests properly. "It's crucial for employers to understand that they can't dismiss mental health accommodation requests out of hand," he says. "Failure to engage in the interactive process can lead to significant legal repercussions."

Implications of ADA for RTO Mandates

The implications of widespread awareness about these rights are significant. If employees begin to leverage mental health claims to secure remote work, it could lead to a substantial increase in accommodation requests. This scenario poses a challenge for employers who may need to adjust their RTO policies and processes.

Sonderling notes, "The ADA requires individualized assessments, and what works for one employee might not work for another. Employers need to navigate these requests carefully to avoid discrimination and ensure compliance with the law."

For employers, the key to managing this complex issue lies in a balanced approach. While in-person collaboration offers undeniable benefits, such as enhanced communication and team cohesion, accommodating employees' mental health needs is key to avoiding legal liability.

Employers should develop clear, consistent policies for handling accommodation requests. This includes providing training for managers to recognize legitimate mental health issues and understand the legal requirements. Additionally, employers can explore creative solutions to balance remote work with in-office expectations. This might include hybrid work schedules, flexible hours, or designated quiet spaces in the office for employees with anxiety.

As the workplace continues to evolve, the interplay between mental health accommodations and remote work will remain a critical issue. Employers have the legal obligation to inform their staff of their rights under the ADA, and employers must be prepared to accommodate legitimate mental health needs while maintaining operational efficiency.

For leaders, the challenge is to create an inclusive work environment that supports mental health without sacrificing the benefits of in-person collaboration. By navigating this complex landscape thoughtfully and legally, employers can foster a workplace that respects employees' mental health needs and drives business success.


TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author. Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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