How can you tell if full-time work is truly an essential function of an employee’s job?


I’ll give you an example.

Suppose one of your supervisors has worked full-time (at least 40-hour weeks) on the evening shift for many years. Then, they are diagnosed with a disability and take FMLA leave. When the FMLA expired, they requested (and the company approved) a temporary accommodation allowing them to work part-time and partly from home for several months, even though the company did not employ any other part-time employees. The company even extended the accommodation upon request a few times but eventually denied the request and terminated their employment.

Suppose the employee claims that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to continue to accommodate them with part-time work. How can the employer successfully defend the claim and convince the court that the employee cannot perform the job’s essential functions because their position is full-time?

We turn to a recent decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals for the answer.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability. A “qualified individual” can perform the job’s essential functions with or without accommodation. But the accommodation must be reasonable, i.e., enabling the employee to perform the job’s essential functions.

So we must determine whether working full-time is essential.

The employer’s judgment is an important factor. A job description may be the best evidence. But even if it does not explicitly state that the position is full-time, there may be other indicia. For example, in the Eleventh Circuit decision, the job description stated that the position was “Exempt (Salaried),” and the plaintiff’s offer letter explicitly characterized the position as “[f]ull time; 40 hours per week.” Also, the plaintiff testified that she knew the position was full-time when the company hired her. The plaintiff’s supervisor also testified that full-time work was essential.

But how does the company temporarily relaxing the full-time requirements impact the analysis here?

Not much.

The plaintiff acknowledged that other employees had to cover the shifts she missed, had more work, and had to work harder due to her absence. The burdens her part-time schedule caused other employees to bear weighed in the defendant’s favor.

But what if the defendant got by temporarily while the plaintiff worked part-time? The defendant successfully argued that the previous accommodation exceeded what the law required, and the decision to end the temporary accommodation does not violate the ADA.

But remember your least favorite two lawyer words, “It depends.”

For example, a company may need to permit part-time work, e.g., where the employer has part-time jobs readily available. It’s a fact-intensive analysis.

However, if a job is genuinely full-time, an employer never needs to eliminate that essential function.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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