In a recent case (Hostettler v. College of Wooster), the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a requirement that an employee work full time, without a duties-based reason for the requirement.
In this case, the plaintiff was an HR Generalist at College of Wooster. The plaintiff had recently had a baby and, when she was released to return to work, her doctor provided a restriction that the plaintiff could only work part-time because the plaintiff was suffering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety.
Initially, the employer granted the requested accommodation – allowing the employee to work 5 half days per week. The plaintiff worked that modified schedule for one month and then turned in a note from her doctor stating that she would need to continue working the modified schedule for an additional two months. The next day, the employee was terminated. The reason given – the department could not function properly because the plaintiff was not working full-time and working a full-time schedule was an essential function of the HR Generalist position. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming that her termination was discriminatory.
The Court agreed holding that while the ability to work full-time can potentially be an essential function of a position, that determination requires a fact-specific inquiry and depends on the nature of the job. Specifically, the Court found that “full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is. If it were otherwise, employers could refuse any accommodation that left an employee at work fewer than 40 hours per week.” (which would defeat the purpose of the ADA and the requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodation.
Employers must be prepared to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities, which can include working a reduced or modified schedule.