Point for the (Work from) Home Team? Sixth Circuit Says Attendance at Work Not Automatically an Essential Work Function“You have to show up for work—it’s a part of your job.” Attendance at the workplace is an essential work function in an ADA case. But is it really anymore? With technology, some would argue that many jobs can be done from anywhere, and employees (particularly disabled employees) are more and more seeking to work from home. The Sixth Circuit addressed this issue recently in the decision of Hostettler v. College of Wooster.

Alternative Work Schedule

Heidi Hostettler worked in the HR department of the College of Wooster. She was four months pregnant when she took the job, and the told her that they would allow her 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, even though she didn’t qualify for it under the FMLA due to her short time of service. Her HR position was full-time, and Ms. Hostettler’s duties included performance-improvement plans, recruiting new hires, and designing training programs.

After the birth of her child and her 12 weeks of leave, Ms. Hostettler presented a note from her doctor stating that she had postpartum depression and one of the worst cases of separation anxiety her doctor had ever seen. The doctor suggested a return to work on a part-time basis for maybe a month or two. The college said okay, and Ms. Hostettler began working half days, but she had severe panic attacks if she had to work much later than noon. However, she returned emails from home and performed other work activities while away from the office.

There were disputes about whether the modified schedule was working. Several employees (through affidavits) said that there were no problems with Ms. Hostettler working part-time and from home. During this time, Ms. Hostettler got her first annual evaluation that indicated she was doing a good job and did not mention a problem with her reduced schedule. However, the college said the schedule was putting a strain on the rest of the HR Department. After several months, Ms. Hostettler submitted a new certification from her doctor that said she should continue to work part-time for at least several months.

After that latest certification, the college terminated Ms. Hostettler citing that she was unable to return to her assigned position of HR Generalist in a full-time capacity. A few months later, the college hired a male replacement. Ms. Hostettler sued for violations of the ADA and FMLA and for sex discrimination. The college moved for summary judgment stating that since the position considered full-time work as an essential function, and Ms. Hostettler couldn’t do that, that she was not a qualified individual under the ADA. The lack of being a qualified individual for the position also supported dismissal for the other claims. Ms. Hostettler appealed.

Sixth Circuit Analysis

The Sixth Circuit focused on the fact that the college admitted that the sole reason it fired Ms. Hostettler was because it could no longer accommodate her modified schedule. The court noted that the standard for her being qualified is that she can perform the essential functions of a job with or without an accommodation. The court pointed out that a job function is only essential if it is a core job duty—one that would fundamentally alter the position if it was removed. This analysis has to be done on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, Ms. Hostettler submitted evidence that she had satisfied all the core tasks of her position—even when she was only at her office for half days. She also submitted an affidavit from a co-worker who noted that there were no problems during Ms. Hostettler’s time in the position and that she completed all her work in a timely manner. Ms. Hostettler also showed that even her supervisor gave her a good review while she was working the part-time schedule. The court did note that there was evidence presented to the contrary —some projects had “dropped through the cracks” while Ms. Hostettler was working part-time. Another apparent dispute of fact was that while the college said it talked to Ms. Hostettler about the need for her to be at work full-time, she denied that series of discussions had taken place.

The Sixth Circuit held that full-time presence at work is not, on its own, an essential function. Time and presence requirements must be tied to some other job requirement. The court distinguished cases where presence at the workplace was considered an essential function by showing that in those cases, the person had to physically be at the worksite to complete the job. Instead, the court felt that this case was more like other instances where an employee could complete the essential functions while working remotely. According to the court, “full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says it is.” In the end, the court reversed the summary judgment, finding that

“an employer cannot deny a modified work schedule as unreasonable unless the employer can show why the employee is needed on a full-time schedule; merely stating that anything less than full-time employment is per se unreasonable will not relieve an employer of its ADA responsibilities.”

Is Attendance an Essential Function?

While this case probably will soften the edges around some accommodation requests to work from home, it doesn’t automatically preclude an employer from claiming that full-time presence at the workplace is an essential job function.

  • Jobs where the work can only be performed at the job site—such as construction, manufacturing, call centers, etc.—-will not likely be affected.
  • Office work and sales jobs where technology may allow an employee to conduct work from other locations, or on other schedules, may be affected.

This decision should inspire employers to re-examine job descriptions and determine what sort of functions they believe can only be done at the job site. Those descriptions need to be detailed and supportable. Finally, remember that one size does not fit all, and every request has to be assessed on its own. You cannot deny an employee’s modified or work-from-home schedule because no one else has such a schedule. Each request must have a separate, well-documented interactive process.

“No Flair! Is That Fair? Fifth Circuit Overturns Burger Joint’s Ban on Buttons”Many of us remember the classic scene from “Office Space” where Jennifer Aniston’s waitress character was chastised for not having enough “flair”—whimsical buttons on her uniform. The Fifth Circuit recently addressed the exact opposite situation: In-N-Out Burger sought to enforce a policy which forbids employees from sporting any buttons on their uniforms. What types of buttons go too far, if any? What size buttons are a problem? Is it true that a button could fall in my burger? The Fifth Circuit opinion examines all of these questions.

Button, Button, Who’s Wearing a Button?

This case arises out of the In-N-Out Burger restaurant in Austin, Texas. In-N-Out is a chain of burger restaurants found primarily out west. In-N-Out has a uniform policy requiring that all of its employees wear white pants, white shirt, white socks, black shoes, black belt, red apron, gold apron pin, company-issued name tag and a hat. The policy also specifically states that “wearing any type of pin or stickers is not permitted.”

In 2015, Amanda Healy appeared for her shift at In-N-Out wearing a “Fight for $15” button, which referred to a campaign by fast-food workers seeking higher wages. The next day, another employee, Brad Crowder, also showed up wearing the same type of button. The general manager told Crowder to remove the button because it violated the uniform policy. Crowder removed the button but also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that the policy violated his rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. That section protects the right of employees to wear items such as pins, buttons and stickers relating to wages, conditions of employment, unionization and other matters.

At the NLRB hearing, In-N-Out argued that there were “special circumstances” that justified its ban on buttons: 1) They have an interest in maintaining a unique public image, and 2) that the buttons could cause concern about food safety. The Administrative Law Judge and the NLRB ultimately rejected that argument, and In-N-Out then appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

Fifth Circuit Button Discussion

The Fifth Circuit noted the long history of Section 7 being used to allow workers to wear pins and buttons in the workplace to support union activity and complaints about conditions of employment. The court then looked to see if In-N-Out could show that it had met the narrow exception to the rule by demonstrating that there were special circumstances sufficient to outweigh the workers’ right to wear the pins. Past examples of these types of “special circumstances” included showing how the protected items would:  1) jeopardize employee safety; 2) damage machinery or products; 3) exacerbate employee dissension; or 4) unreasonably interfere with a public image that the employer has established. These exceptions have to be narrowly tailored and supported by substantial, non-speculative evidence.

In-N-Out claimed that the “no button” rule was part of its attempt to maintain a consistent public image across all stores through its uniform policy. However, the court found that this argument was significantly undercut by the fact that the restaurant chain specifically required its employees to wear company-issued buttons twice a year—once at Christmas time and again during a company-wide fundraiser. The fact that In-N-Out required buttons and that the use of the buttons during these two instances changed employees’ “consistent public image” caused the Fifth Circuit to find that the policy did not meet the special circumstances exception.

Next, In-N-Out argued that the button ban was a food safety concern. They said that the “Fight for $15” buttons were small and lightweight and that an employee might not notice if it fell off of the uniform and into a customer’s food. The court noted that this concern apparently didn’t apply to In-N-Out’s own buttons and that the restaurant chain failed to present any substantial evidence that its health concerns were valid. As such, the Fifth Circuit also rejected this defense and upheld the NLRB decision that the button ban violated Section 7.

So What about Buttons?

As this decision indicates, there is a long history of protecting a worker’s right to wear a union pin or a button protesting a certain work practice. Employers who choose to ban their workers from wearing buttons should be sure that they have significant evidence to back up their argument of special circumstances. The list above provides a good starting point, but it is a heavy burden.

Combining Classrooms and Class Actions: Trump Proposes Combining Labor and Education DepartmentsCould the Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Education (DOE) possibly merge in the near future? President Trump thinks so and recently announced his desire to combine the two departments into a single federal agency to be called the Department of Education and the Workforce. According to a White House Statement, the new agency would be “charged with meeting the needs of American students and workers from education and skill development to workplace protection to retirement security.” The proposed restructuring would provide for four sub-agencies: K-12, Higher Education/Workforce Development, Enforcement, and Research/Evaluation.

Current Status

DOE is the smallest cabinet agency with just under 4,000 employees and a $68 billion budget, and oversees federal student loans, distributes K-12 education funding, and enforces civil rights laws at colleges. DOL, by contrast, has about 15,000 employees and a $13 billion budget to support its broad agenda of training programs, enforcement of wage and safety laws, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The proposal is part of a larger plan by the administration to reorganize and reduce the size of federal government agencies. Other combinations of sections of federal agencies have been discussed by the OMB, which itself may have a shrinking role.

Reactions to the Proposal

Not surprisingly, reaction to the proposed combination has been mixed. Current administration members support it. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos promoted the idea to help break down “artificial barriers” between education and career development. Mick Mulvaney, director of the federal OMB, spoke in favor of the plan to reduce the size of the federal government which he described as “bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient.”

Opponents say it would be a bad idea. Chris Lu, a former Deputy Secretary of Labor under President Obama, pointed out that only parts of the two agencies deal with worker training because most of DOL consists of enforcement agencies such as OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour, and OFCCP that were created to protect workers. The National Employment Law Project (a union-backed think tank) denounced the proposal as a “half-baked idea” that would only betray the workers for whom President Trump pledged to advocate.

Members of the business community may welcome entities such as OSHA and MSHA falling under the DOE, which has a more educational (and less enforcement-oriented) focus.

Likely to Happen?

Odds of the combination actually coming to fruition seem unlikely. Congress has to approve a major reorganization of cabinet departments, which means 60 votes in the Senate. POLITICO (a Washington, D.C. political news outlet) surmised that the plan “would pose a heavy political and legislative lift” as previous attempts to eliminate the DOE have failed in Congress. President Obama had his own reorganization plan in 2012 that never went anywhere. Seth Harris, Deputy Secretary of Labor under President Obama, predicted that the merger will not happen.

From a high level, some of the mandates of these two agencies overlap. One pursues education to enter the labor force while the other focuses on the workforce (with some training programs). The proposed merger faces many obstacles before the finer details are even discussed, such as what (and who) gets cut. If nothing else, the announced plan has attracted attention, and it is worth keeping an eye on. Having DOL sections combined and altered with a focus on education (rather than just on enforcement) would certainly be a game changer for many employers.