Chicago, Ill. (September 26, 2023) – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which covers Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, recently held that employers may be required to provide accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for employees to safely commute to work.
In EEOC v. Charter Communications LLC, 75 F. 4th 729 (7th Cir. 2023), an employee of Charter Communications had a vision disability that made nighttime driving unsafe. Because public transportation was not a feasible option, the employee requested a change to his work schedule to reduce nighttime driving during his commute home. Charter Communications granted the employee's scheduling request for thirty days, but denied his request to extend beyond the thirty days. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) then filed suit on behalf of the employee for allegedly failing to accommodate the employee's disability under the ADA.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin granted summary judgment in favor of Charter Communications. The Court held the employer was not required to accommodate the employee's commute because the disability did not affect the employee's ability to perform an essential function of his job once at the workplace. The EEOC appealed.
The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's holding and concluded that an employee with a disability may be entitled to a work-schedule accommodation in order to safely commute to work where "commuting to work is a prerequisite to an essential job function, such as attendance in the workplace, and [where] the accommodation is reasonable under the circumstances." The appellate court found the employee's requested work-schedule accommodation was not unreasonable given physical attendance was an essential function of the job and the employee's disability hindered his ability to commute to work safely.
However, the Seventh Circuit did not adopt a bright-line rule between accommodations regarding an employee's commuting issues and accommodations at the employer's workplace. The Court noted the existing state of the law that in most cases, an employer has no duty to accommodate an employee with a disability with his commute to and from work, assuming that no such accommodation is provided to employees without disabilities.
The major takeaway for employers is that whether a work-schedule or other commute-related accommodation under the ADA is reasonable requires a "highly fact-specific inquiry that considers the needs of both employer and employee." In making such a determination, employers should consider factors such as "the efficacy of a proposed accommodation and its effects on the employer's business operation, effects on other employee's workloads and schedules, and in some cases effects on seniority systems and collective bargaining agreements."
The ADA continues to evolve, and employers should always engage in a case-by-case analysis and interactive process to ensure requests for reasonable accommodations are properly addressed.
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