Some workers mandated to return to work prefer to work from home due to disabilities. When employers fail to make proper accommodations for workers with physical and mental disability or other barriers to in-office work, workers are filing discrimination lawsuits.
Amid heated disputes over RTO mandates, some workers are claiming they need to work at home. When employers refuse to consider worker needs, many are turning to the court and filing discrimination lawsuits.
Workers called back to work by employer return-to-office RTO mandates may or may not be happy about the request. Still, in October, 60% of temporarily remote workers reported to the workplace. Some felt they were compromising the work-life balance they were starting to find when working from home, but they reported to the office for at least a designated number of days per week. Others needed the accommodation of working from home due to disability or other reason. When employers fail to work with them, some workers are seeking relief from the court.
All suits to date have centered around three main categories of issues: discrimination, breach of contract, and wage and hour conflicts. Of these, discrimination is at the root of many lawsuits.
Discrimination Lawsuits Based On Physical Disabilities
Those with physical disabilities, anxieties, pressing home responsibilities such as kids or infirm relatives to deal with, and even those located far from the office claim that not being able to work remotely equals discrimination.
Disabled workers were a major beneficiary of remote work policies. Those hired remotely were hired for their ability to do a job and not judged adversely for their disabilities. Many new and long-employed disabled workers found they could quickly work from home without the burden of commuting or requesting accommodations in the workplace. Those with anxiety or others often victimized at work with microaggressions found that working remotely encourages productivity without stress, pressure, and humiliation.
The ability to work from home resulted in a surge in disabled persons in the workforce, from 3.7 million in April 2020 to 7.6 million in July 2023. While some employers continue to allow disabled workers to do so from home, others are insisting on presence in the workplace.
The ADA added remote work as a reasonable accommodation in its 2020 guidelines, but it takes time for the courts to get caught up and establish precedence. Employees who need to work out of the office should appeal to their employers and then ask for an assessment from the EEOC under ADA provisions if the company refuses. If your job duties can be performed remotely and other accommodations offered by the employer (such as flexible hours) won’t work for you, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will examine your situation and rule on a case-by-case basis.
Companies are not required to offer telework to all employees, but they must offer those with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate. According to EEOC spokesperson Brandalyn Bickner, quoted in Axios, employers may need to modify workplace policies to accommodate disabled people.
Here are several of the current lawsuits over discrimination against workers with physical disabilities because of RTO mandates.
EEOC v. ISS Facility Services, Inc. resulted when a disabled employee with a high risk of COVID was fired after she refused to come to the office. Previously, she had worked a rotating schedule during the pandemic, But the company refused to accommodate her. She received $47,500, and the company must allow EEOC monitoring of accommodation requests.
In Electric Boat Corp. v. Zacchery Belval, A man with multiple health issues worked at home during the pandemic but was required to return to work in what he considered poor office conditions. The company considered him to have resigned when he did not return, even though what he requested was ADA-compliant accommodations.
Total Systems Services, LLC, a global payments processing company based in Columbus, Georgia, refused requests to work remotely from a disabled employee who was a higher-than-average COVID risk when many coworkers were testing high for the virus. She was forced to go on leave and then resign, although the company permitted others to work remotely during the time she was on leave. The EEOC is suing for “back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages for the employee, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination.”
Companies like Twitter have managed to win cases against disabled workers who complained about lack of accommodation. While Twitter (X) has been battling many lawsuits over employee issues since Elon Musk bought the company, as Reuters notes, “There is little legal precedent on when remote work qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and the question ultimately turns on the facts of individual cases. Because of that, disability bias claims can be difficult to bring in a class action lawsuit.”
The physically disabled are not the only group impacted by the RTO mandates.
Mental Health Issues
During the pandemic, anxiety and depression increased by 25%. Those with mental health issues such as anxiety or others often victimized at work with microaggressions found that working remotely encouraged productivity without anxiety, pressure, and humiliation. They may seek continued remote work accommodations now.
The EEOC is seeing a 16% increase in mental health disorders as the basis of disability discrimination complaints. One example is of a marketing manager in Georgia who requested to work from home three days a week to relieve anxiety but was fired.
Remote workers over 50 found they liked the stride of remote work. When forced to go back, 25% said they were thinking about retirement as a result. However, 43% of this group said they were less likely to retire if they could work remotely. If companies fail to offer remote or hybrid work to older employees, they face mass retirements of skilled older workers and potential age discrimination suits.
During the pandemic, many qualified older workers were bypassed in favor of younger workers because they were assumed to be more vulnerable to COVID.
Working Parents and Gender Disparities
Women with caregiving responsibilities at home found that flexible hours allowed them to deliver a good day’s work they could interweave with their other responsibilities. During the time when it was hard to find workers to cover jobs,1.3 million women joined the workforce and kept many businesses alive. The accommodations women workers made to balance parenting and caregiving duties and work tasks remained behind the scenes without compromising their opportunities to receive promotions, bonuses, and raises.
As employers called workers back to the office, old norms that exacted a motherhood penalty on women workers resurfaced. Companies pulled back opportunities to work at home, which impacted women more than men. Twice as many working mothers as working fathers considered leaving a job that won’t accommodate their childcare needs, while 30% of mothers versus 17% of fathers complain about flexibility in working hours.
Working mothers need benefits such as extended maternity leave, breastfeeding breaks, and either onsite daycare facilities or subsidies for childcare. The stress that women face will ultimately lead to policy changes that are more considerate of the flexibility that parents need or discrimination suits may follow.
Other Workplace Discrimination
Remote work means more digital communication with programs such as Zoom for group and person-to-person interactions. Companies must ensure digital equality between onsite and virtual attendees so that all have the opportunity to participate. Virtual contact opens the door for employee harassment, as some workers can criticize the homes and appearance of others or make rude and insensitive comments about race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Companies should have training set up to school employees about what they should say or do online, plus have policies to deal with offenders. The alternative is harassment suits from offended employees who might feel unwelcome or even bullied in meetings.
Employers may have good reason to require workers back in the office, but that does not let companies off the hook from offering accommodations to workers who are disabled or in other classes subject to frequent discrimination. With the backing of the EEOC and the Americans With Disabilities Act, more workers are making their case for telework in court.