Telecommuting as reasonable accommodation? Court says, “Yes.”

Telecommuting as reasonable accommodation? Court says, “Yes.”

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By Lisa Peck and Daniel Velton

When Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer abandoned the company’s wildly popular telecommuting policy, the move was met with a storm of protest.  As an industry leader, Yahoo’s innovative flex options were seen as a welcome paradigm shift of where, how, and by whom work gets done.

Mayer’s move reflected a common misconception that telework creates a dangerous “out of sight, out of mind” career dynamic. Employers worry about reduced performance, decreased productivity, increased obligations, and lack of control or oversight.  Employees fear exclusion from opportunities and advancement, loss of benefits, being ostracized or devalued for lack of “face-time.”

Yet, telework is sometimes the best choice for worker job satisfaction and employer competitive advantage. Technological advances, evolving societal values, and legal progress affecting workers’ rights make telework not only a possibility, but also a practical necessity in today’s workplace.

The reasons for teleworking are as diverse as the people seeking alternatives to physically being in the workplace all day, everyday. For example:

  • An employee who is able to work a full-time schedule may have an illness preventing him from physically being in the office full-time;
  • A start-up business is in dire need of more workers, but it does not have the resources to physically expand its workspace or move to a bigger location;
  • A single parent needs flexible work arrangements to work from home to provide care for a disabled child;
  • An employer suffers pointless downtime as a result of horrendous commuter traffic, and needs a solution.

In these situations, telework is a win-win for everyone.

Recently, in Equal Opportunity Employment Commission v. Ford Motor Co., the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a groundbreaking opinion recognizing that an employee may be entitled to “remote work” (telework) as a reasonable accommodation for his or her disability, along with more traditional options such as modification of workstations, flexible work-hours, frequent breaks, job transfers or reassignments, and finite leaves of absence.

In its decision, the Sixth Circuit Court differentiated “remote work” from “flex-time” arrangements – distinct concepts that are often confused. Although employers may reasonably require a worker’s adherence to a regular schedule during predictable business hours, the essential functions of many jobs do not require in-person attendance.

The court reasoned that, “the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context, as it has in other areas of modern life, and recognize that the ‘workplace’ is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.” It recognized a cultural shift in that “communications technology has advanced to the point that it is no longer an ‘unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties from home.’”

The Federal government recognizes telework as an established component of the modern workplace. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 required federal agencies to establish a framework making telework available to federal employees. The EEOC published Guidance to put employers on notice that blanket prohibitions on work-from-home policies may constitute actionable discrimination against disabled employees. The U.S. Department of Labor warns employers against misuse of telework policies for reasons prohibited by law, such as excluding employees from telework or forcing telework upon employees based on improper motives. Yet, during recent outbreaks of the H1N1 virus, the DOL suggested telework as an option for employers to minimize the spread of illness and worker absence. Similarly, OSHA has updated provisions relating to the safety of and recordkeeping for teleworkers at remote worksites to protect both employers and employees.

Telework also offers creative solutions to employers. For instance, employers reasonably worry about consistent workflow during an employee’s leave of absence, and the added expense and logistics of covering the absence. However, an employer may consider temporary reassignment of an employee to a telework position as an alternative to full-time leaves of absence, and it may consider combining intermittent leave with telework to both extending the time over which leave may occur while keeping work current.

Some employers, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, have taken teleworking to a new level with “hoteling,” a practice allowing rotation of office space while other employees work from home. Other trends breaking down the walls of our workplace are concepts of work-anywhere, “BYOD” (or, “Bring Your Own Device”), walking meetings, and other innovations to improve both work-life balance and productivity.

Telework opens doors for both employees and employers.  The recent decision recognizing telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation is an important step toward workplace equality.  By acknowledging that workers can efficiently perform and thrive  in alternative “workplaces,” the court has set a welcome precedent in favor of innovative workplace policies that increase employment opportunities for all.

Lisa Peck

About Elizabeth Peck

Lisa is a partner in the firm of Peck Law, LLP with offices in Salt Lake City, Utah and San Jose, California.  She practices employment, discrimination, and civil rights law. She is a past ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and having been diagnosed with MS in 1996, Lisa remains actively involved in educating the MS community, their caregivers, and physicians about their rights and responsibilities under the ADA and the FMLA.  Lisa splits her time between California and Utah, and she is an avid cyclist, skier, lacrosse player, and surfer.

Honor working moms this Mother’s Day by signing a card to protect their jobs

Honor working moms this Mother’s Day by signing a card to protect their jobs

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By Sarah Schlehr

This year marks the 100th official anniversary of Mother’s Day.  Let’s make it memorable by asking Congress to support the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.  The National Women’s Law Center is asking everyone to sign the biggest Mother’s Day card ever.  By signing this card, you will be asking Congress to protect pregnant women and allow them to keep their jobs when they need modest accommodations during their pregnancy.

Although California has some of the strongest workplace protections for pregnant women, many states today do nothing to protect moms-to-be in their jobs.  Pregnant women have been fired because they asked to avoid heavy lifting, stay off ladders, or sit on a stool instead of standing at a cash register all day.  And the companies that fired them, did so legally!  This needs to change.

Women make up almost half of today’s workforce and over forty percent of moms are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.  Sixty-five percent of married mothers with children work.  The Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act would help moms-to-be stay in their jobs and continue providing the financial support that their families need.

Not only are mothers’ incomes often essential to providing for the needs of their babies, but studies have shown that working mothers have children with higher scores in language, reading, and math across gender, socioeconomic, and marital status.  The daughters of working mothers showed more positive assertiveness, increased willingness to challenge traditional gender roles, and increased competence.  Dual income couples also report the highest marital quality.  And while there is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom, we need to protect the employment of mothers who work.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) already protects disabled workers from being fired when they need reasonable accommodations at work.  There is no reason that pregnant workers shouldn’t receive the same protection.  For example, the ADA would protect a worker who experienced a hernia and needed to avoid heavy lifting, but if that same worker became pregnant, the employer could legally fire her for asking for the exact same accommodation.

The Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act would change this by ensuring that employers make reasonable accommodations when workers have a medical need because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.  Because new moms should never have to choose between the health of their baby and their job.

This Mother’s Day, tell Congress to do more than pay lip service to our hard working moms.  It’s time we pass the the Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act and show our moms that they are valued both at home and in the workforce.

Sarah Schlehr

About Sarah Schlehr

Sarah B. Schlehr is the founder of The Schlehr Law Firm, P.C. Her firm focuses on representing employees who are discriminated against because of pregnancy or for taking a leave of absence. Her firm also represents veterans who have been discriminated against for taking military leave. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School, Brigham Young University, Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, and the Strauss Institutes’ Program on Mediating the Litigated Case.

What you need to know before you blow the whistle 2

What you need to know before you blow the whistle

By Anne Richardson

Can a public employee be terminated because he testified truthfully that another government employee was defrauding the government?   That is the question in the case of Lane v. Franks, argued in front of the United States Supreme Court earlier this week.

Edward Lane was hired as interim director of an at-risk youth program for Central Alabama Community College.  Shortly after he started working, he audited the program’s finances, and found that Sue Schmitz, an employee who was also a  member of the State Legislature, appeared not to be performing her community relations job, even though she was collecting a paycheck.

Representative Schmitz’ “no show” job performance was investigated by the FBI, and eventually she became the subject of a federal prosecution by the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Lane was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney to testify before a grand jury and in two criminal trials.

Lane testified truthfully that Representative Schmitz was on the payroll for his program –  one of its highest paid employees — but had never reported for work.  When he attempted to get her to carry out her job duties Schmitz refused, and  warned him not to mess with her.  He fired her despite the threat because he believed that allowing her to continue taking money for a “no show” job would make him complicit in her dishonesty.

Schmitz was convicted in federal court of taking $177,000 in public funds.  The Alabama Attorney General called the case “one of the most egregious public corruption situations in Alabama’s history.” It led to a total rewrite of its public corruption laws and ethics laws. But instead of being rewarded for his part in bringing her to justice, Mr. Lane was fired from his job.

Hey wait a minute, how could this happen?  Government whistleblowers are protected by the First Amendment, aren’t they?  Well, not always.  The Supreme Court has long held that government employers have greater latitude to discipline whistleblowers than employers in the private sector.  It created a balancing test to ensure that public employees cannot simply say whatever they want, to whomever they want.

In Pickering v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that the subject of the employee’s speech must be of public concern; the employee’s comments cannot be false; and the employee’s conduct must not interfere with the regular operations of the employer.  In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Court ruled that if the employee’s speech is part of her official responsibilities, she is not protected from retaliation by the First Amendment.

The Lane case gives the Supreme Court its first opportunity to clarify what it meant in Garcetti.   The attorney representing Lane’s employer argued that since Lane’s testimony was based on information that Lane learned in carrying out his job duties, he is not protected by the First Amendment. Lane’s attorney responded that since testifying in response to a federal subpoena in a corruption investigation was not part of his job duties, he is protected.  Lane is supported by numerous groups, including the National Association of Police Organizations, whose “friend of the court” brief argued that permitting retaliation against officers who testify would “promote obstruction of justice.”

California law provides more protection to whistleblowers, both public and private. In 2013,the Legislature amended the California Labor Code to make it clear that employees are protected against retaliation “regardless of whether disclosing the information is part of the employee’s job duties.”

California’s approach is better because whether or not reporting misconduct is a whistleblower’s job, society loses if he is not protected. If you can terminate someone who fulfills his responsibility by testifying truthfully, you are creating a perverse incentive to lie under oath.  As a society, we should encourage whistleblowers who bring corruption to light, not punish them.  A decision from the high court should be announced this summer.

Anne Richardson

About Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the Associate Director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a project aimed at eliminating economic injustice on behalf of underrepresented workers, students, and families throughout California and nationwide. Previously she was a partner at Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick representing plaintiffs in all varieties of employment discrimination and civil rights matters for over twenty years. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has been named to the Top 100 Lawyers in Southern California and has received numerous honors for her work.

Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias

Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias

By Ramit Mizrahi

As I explained last week, unconscious biases harm women in the workplace. Rather than just putting the burden on women to navigate around biases, organizations should be focusing on fixing the problem.

Many people assume that it will take years, if not decades, to reduce the effects of biases because we must fundamentally transform how people think. But psychologists have identified at least six concrete steps that can alter the decision-making environment to reduce the impact of implicit biases in the short term. Each of these can be utilized in the workplace to create immediate improvements.

1.  Block biases by withholding identifying information.

When decision-makers are kept ignorant of the identifying characteristics of individuals (called blinding), they are prevented from acting based on stereotypes. For example, many orchestras conduct auditions behind a screen to conceal the musicians’ identities.  It has been estimated that this process leads to a 50% increase in women making it past the preliminary round, and a 30 to 55% increase in the proportion of female hires.

2.  Raise consciousness about bias whenever decisions are being made.

People discriminate less when stereotypes and group categories are made salient.  It may be than when we are conscious of commonly held stereotypes, we can actively work to avoid falling prey to them. Organizations should have open discussions about the effects of unintentional biases prior to making hiring and other employment decisions. The Implicit Association Test (IAT), a test used to help identify implicit biases, can also be used as a consciousness-raising tool to help people explore their implicit biases.

3.  Establish objective criteria whenever possible.

Research has shown that the more ambiguous criteria and subjectivity are allowed in making a decision, the more likely that unintentional bias can influence the process. Objective criteria should be established in advance to ensure that people are being judged on the appropriate measures.

4.  Give the decision-maker enough time and information to make decisions.

When people are distracted or under time pressure, they are more likely to fall back on ethnic and gender stereotypes to make decisions. Without adequate information, they tend to fill in the gaps with biased assumptions.  Organizations can correct for these tendencies by providing more time and information.

5.  Expand the “in-group” to include traditionally stereotyped people.

Some psychologists have concluded that the disparity between the ratings of in-group and out-group members stems more from a preference for in-group members than from a dislike of out-group members. Studies show that if people recognize a person as an in-group member (college alumni, from the same city, favors the same sports team… anything), they are less likely to focus on the other differences that make the person an outsider. So, for example, a company can create camaraderie among “teams” so that people relate to each other as members of the same group.

6.  Integrate workplaces and put women and minorities in positions of authority.

This is the ultimate solution. We know that the mere presence of a person can reduce stereotyping against her group. In fact, a whole body of research has shown that intergroup contact can reduce biases. However, if there are only one or two token women (or people of color) in positions of authority, others may simply write them off as exceptions to the rule. Women are not immune to these biases. Only when there is a number so large that they cannot be written off as exceptions will pre-existing stereotypes be fundamentally altered. Thus, the more numerous women are, the less biases affect judgments of them.

Two studies discussed in Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, reflect this point. In the first, 486 blue-collar and clerical work groups evaluated the performance of both men and women. When women consisted of less than 20% of a group, they were rated much lower than the men. When they were between 20% percent and 50% of the workforce, they were still rated lower than the men, though less so. But when women constituted 50% or more of the groups, they were rated more highly than males. The second study found that when women were 25% or less of an applicant pool, they were evaluated more negatively than when they made up 37.5% or more of a pool. In addition, the fewer women there were in the applicant pool, the more likely they were to be perceived as stereotypically feminine (i.e., unambitious, emotional, indecisive).

These studies lend force to the argument that a critical mass of women can suppress – or even alter – the implicit associations between sex and ability that lead people to judge women less favorably than they deserve. A critical mass of 20% has been proposed to break stereotypes. The more women we have in positions of authority, the less they will be harmed by unconscious biases. Reaching and surpassing this critical mass should be a top goal for employers committed to equal opportunity.

Since implicit associations affect the decision making of even the most well-intentioned people, biases will continue to permeate our workplaces unless employers take action.  Much has been written about what women can do in the short term to not be victimized by bias. The time has come for employers to “lean in” and take decisive action to prevent these biases from manifesting in the first place.

Ramit Mizrahi

About Ramit Mizrahi

Ramit Mizrahi, the founder of Mizrahi Law, APC, practices in the area of employment law, representing employees exclusively. Her work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave law issues, and wrongful termination. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, The London School of Economics, and UC-Berkeley.

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