Vol. 108 2024 No. 1 (Jan/Feb)

Human Resources: ADA May Necessitate Work Commute Accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal statute that extends civil rights protection to persons who are considered disabled. Title I of the ADA, the employment section, applies to employers with 15 or more employees and makes it unlawful to discriminate against qualified individuals (job applicants and employees) on the basis of a disability (or perception of a disability) with regard to any aspect of employment. Retaliation and harassment are also prohibited.

A qualified individual with a disability is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of his or her job. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that “substantially” limits one or more major life activities (e.g., walking, lifting, seeing, hearing, concentrating, breathing). Employers must reasonably accommodate a qualified individual with a disability unless the accommodation causes an undue hardship on the employer’s business operations.

What is a reasonable accommodation? A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

Does that mean that an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s commuting needs? Federal courts around the country have reached different conclusions on this issue. Some have found that an employer has no obligation to accommodate transportation barriers because those are matters outside the employer’s control (e.g., where the employee chooses to live, whether friends or family could assist with rides, whether public transportation is available).

In EEOC v. Charter Communications, LLC, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin) recently held that an employee with a disability may be entitled to a work-schedule accommodation to allow the employee to commute more safely to work. The employee worked a 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift in the company’s call center, which was an hour away from his home. The employee had cataracts in his eyes, which made driving at nighttime difficult. The employee asked to modify his work schedule so he could start his shift earlier and leave earlier to avoid driving at night. The company temporarily accommodated his request for 30 days to allow him time to find alternative assistance with his commute.

When the employee asked to extend the time period for another 30 days, the company declined. The company told him that assistance with his commute was not required under the ADA and recommended he look for public transportation or consider carpooling with co-workers. However, public transportation was not available (the local buses did not run late evening) and using a taxi or ride-share service (e.g., Uber) was cost prohibitive. And, when the employee asked the company for the names of employees who lived near him so he could determine if carpooling was an option, the company told him they could not share that information for privacy reasons.

The employee filed a charge of disability discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the company failed to accommodate his disability. The company disputed the charge. The EEOC subsequently filed suit against the company on the employee’s behalf. The district court ruled in favor of the company, concluding that the employee’s disability (impaired vision) did not affect his ability to do his job after he arrived at the call center.

The EEOC appealed the decision to the Seventh Circuit, which reversed the district court. The Seventh Circuit declined to adopt a bright line rule that employers never have an obligation to accommodate employees with disabilities on commuting to and from work. The Court found that, under the particular facts of the case, the employee’s request for a 30-day extension of his modified schedule was not unreasonable as a matter of law because the employee’s disability hindered his ability to safely commute home after work and his attendance at the call center was an essential job function. The Court ordered the case to proceed to trial.

The Court noted that in most cases, an employer does not have a duty to help an employee with a disability get to and from work. However, if an employee’s disability substantially impedes his ability to get to or from work safely and the employee’s physical presence is required, the employee may be entitled to a work-schedule accommodation. It depends on whether physical presence at work is an essential job function,* whether the accommodation is reasonable under the particular circumstances and whether the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Each ADA reasonable accommodation matter is fact-specific and requires an individual analysis.

*The Court noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers allowed employees to work remotely. Presumably, if remote work were an option, then physical presence at work might not be deemed an essential job function. The Court did not weigh in on issues about whether and when physical presence is an essential job function because the parties conceded that the employee’s presence at the call center was an essential job function.

The information in this article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or an opinion of any kind. You should consult with legal counsel for advice on your institution’s specific legal issues.

Debbie grew up watching her father practice law and seeing him help people resolve their problems inspired her to become a lawyer. With a focus on employment litigation and counseling, Debbie’s practice includes defending employers against discrimination claims, wage and hour violations, retaliation claims, unfair competition and FLSA collective actions. She also handles a wide range of business litigation matters.

Email Debra at

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