Many government employees are unaware that they can leverage the Americans with Disabilities Act to request work-from-home accommodations based on mental health conditions.

This knowledge gap has the potential to reshape the “Return to Office” landscape around demands by the Biden administration and Congressional Republicans alike that federal government workers return to office.

Taking the ADA Seriously

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, including mental health conditions. Keith Sonderling, Commissioner at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), told me about the importance of understanding these legal protections.

“Employers must engage in an interactive process with employees who request accommodations for mental health conditions,” says Sonderling. “If an employee is diagnosed with a mental health issue, the employer is obligated to consider accommodations, which could include remote work.”

During the pandemic, many government employees experienced the benefits of working from home, including increased productivity and better work-life balance. As Sonderling points out, there is no inherent legal right to remote work. However, the EEOC has issued recent guidance about how the right to work remotely becomes protected under the ADA when it is a reasonable accommodation for a disability.

Brandalyn Bickner, spokesperson for the EEOC, underscored in the Fall of 2023 that under the ADA, the mandate for “reasonable accommodation” encompasses “modifying workplace policies.” This could entail employers waiving certain eligibility criteria or adjusting telework programs to facilitate remote work for employees with disabilities.

In a notable legal settlement, a facility management company agreed to pay $47,500 to settle an EEOC lawsuit for violating the ADA. The case, EEOC v. ISS Facility Services, Inc., involved the company’s refusal to allow a disabled employee at high risk for COVID-19 to work part-time from home, despite previously allowing a rotating schedule during the pandemic.

The company’s denial of the employee’s request for accommodation, followed by her termination, was deemed a violation of the ADA. The settlement also required the company to permit EEOC monitoring of future accommodation requests. This case emphasizes the importance of ADA compliance and the need for employers to be flexible and consistent in accommodating employees, especially in changing work environments.

In a lawsuit against Electric Boat Corp., Zacchery Belval, a resident of Enfield, Conn., claimed discrimination for the company’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act. Belval, who has multiple health issues, including a heart defect and severe anxiety, argued he was at increased risk for COVID-19. He had worked from home during the pandemic, but faced challenges when the company encouraged a return to the office.

The physical demands of returning and poor office conditions led him to seek continued remote work, which the company partially granted. However, Belval deemed this accommodation insufficient. When he did not return to work under these conditions, Electric Boat considered him resigned. This case underscores the complexities employers face in implementing return-to-office policies while also needing to provide ADA-compliant reasonable accommodations, particularly for employees with significant health risks.

Rights for Flexibility

Despite the clear legal framework, few government employees are aware of their rights under the ADA. This lack of awareness means that many may not realize they can request remote work as an accommodation for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. If more employees were informed, the current RTO dynamics could shift dramatically.

To successfully claim a WFH accommodation, government employees need a formal diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional. This diagnosis must indicate that remote work is necessary for managing their condition. Sonderling explains, “The ADA protects employees with mental health conditions, but it requires a legitimate diagnosis and a documented need for the accommodation.” Once an employee provides documentation, employers must engage in an interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation, which might include full or part-time remote work.

As a consultant specializing in RTO and hybrid work in government agencies, I’ve observed firsthand the concerns of government leaders regarding this issue. Many are eager to bring government employees back to the office, and I’ve advised my clients on how to do so for the sake of fostering collaboration and mutual trust. However, they must navigate the legal requirements and potential influx of accommodation requests, especially as the issues surrounding mental health accomodation and ADA become more widely known.

Sonderling emphasizes the importance of training for managers and HR professionals to handle these requests properly. “It’s crucial for employers to understand that they can’t dismiss mental health accommodation requests out of hand,” he says. “Failure to engage in the interactive process can lead to significant legal repercussions.”

Implications of New Guidance for RTO

The implications of widespread awareness about these rights are significant. If government employees begin to leverage mental health claims to secure remote work, it could lead to a substantial increase in accommodation requests. This scenario poses a challenge for government agencies who may need to adjust their RTO policies and processes.

For example, imagine a government agency where employees have been working remotely since 2020. If several employees request remote work accommodations for mental health reasons, the agency must assess each request individually. This could create disparities and tensions among employees, particularly if some are granted remote work while others are not.

Sonderling notes, “The ADA requires individualized assessments, and what works for one employee might not work for another. Employers need to navigate these requests carefully to avoid discrimination and ensure compliance with the law.”

For agencies, the key to managing this complex issue lies in a balanced approach. While in-person collaboration offers undeniable benefits, such as enhanced communication and team cohesion, accommodating employees’ mental health needs is key to avoiding legal liability.

Agencies should develop clear, consistent policies for handling accommodation requests. This includes providing training for managers to recognize legitimate mental health issues and understand the legal requirements. Additionally, agencies can explore creative solutions to balance remote work with in-office expectations. This might include hybrid work schedules, flexible hours, or designated quiet spaces in the office for employees with anxiety.

As the workplace continues to evolve, the interplay between mental health accommodations and remote work will remain a critical issue. Agencies have a legal obligation to inform their staff of their rights under the ADA, and agencies must be prepared to accommodate legitimate mental health needs while maintaining operational efficiency.

For leaders, the challenge is to create an inclusive work environment that supports mental health without sacrificing the benefits of in-person collaboration. By navigating this complex landscape thoughtfully and legally, agencies can foster a workplace that respects employees’ mental health needs and drives business success.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts.

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