March 3-7 is Telework Week 2014 – a global initiative that strives to raise awareness of the many benefits arising when employers provide the option for their employees to telework. For many employees in the federal government, Telework Week began by working from home during another day of severe winter weather. This proved to be a timely illustration of the benefits of telework to keep a workforce productive even when they aren’t physically able to get to work.
According to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, the term ‘telework’ or ‘teleworking’ refers to a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work. This legislation requires federal agencies to implement telework protocol and procedures, which could allow eligible employees the option to work remotely.
As illustrated this week, the option of telework has benefits during bad weather or other emergencies. Additional advantages include saving money on office space and supplies, “going green” by eliminating the commute to and from work, and encouraging work/life balance for employees. These factors may make it easier to recruit and retain workers as well as advancing the goals and mission of the workplace.
Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation
Apart from the overall benefits of telework, it can also be an effective accommodation strategy for employees with disabilities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers guidance on how telework can be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For many people with disabilities, telework arrangements can provide years of additional productive work beyond what would have been possible in a standard work setting. In many instances, the essential functions of a job can still be performed from an alternate location and at more flexible times. And, telework has been made a more viable accommodation option by advancements in digital technologies making various forms of communication possible across long distances, even on a shared project. These advancements also serve to reduce previous fears that an accommodation of telework forces isolation from co-workers. When appropriate attention is paid to the effectiveness of an accommodation, win-win situations can emerge.
As a federal collaborator, the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) at the Department of Defense (DoD) supports telework by providing services and accommodations to eligible federal workers with disabilities and wounded Service members. CAP’s employment initiative describes telework as a form of reasonable accommodation by permitting an individual to perform his or her job remotely. CAP can provide training and consultation, assistive technology, computer hardware and software, and other office telecommunication equipment to allow a person to telework.
Telework can benefit individuals with various medical conditions and the limitations they may face in the workplace. Let’s take a closer look at a few real scenarios fielded by JAN consultants where telework was an effective accommodation option.
Accommodation Examples from JAN Customers
An editor with a vision impairment was not able to drive to work. He lived in a rural area so public transportation was not an option. The employer permitted the employee to work from home. The employee was able to conference call in for important meetings when necessary.
A registered nurse with hearing loss and mental health impairment was experiencing anxiety and sleep disturbances. Her job entailed monitoring home health clients though a computer system and telephone. Her employer allowed her to install the data secured equipment in her home thus enabling her to successfully perform her job tasks while minimizing her symptoms.
A loan officer experienced migraine headaches multiple times a month. The migraines would cause the employee to be fatigued and photosensitive. This was causing the employee to only be able to work for 4-5 hours in the office causing attendance concerns. To minimize absences, the employee was allowed to telework from home where she was able to take self-regulated breaks and work when she felt her best.
An accountant with chronic pain syndrome and a back impairment had a problem sitting at his desk for extended amounts of time. The employee was allowed to work from home a few times a week, which enabled him to alternate positions and build in periodic rest breaks for stretching.
A customer service representative had multiple chemical sensitivity. The various fragrances within the office space were exacerbating the employee’s symptoms. After other options proved unsuccessful – such as a fragrance free policy, air purifiers, and an isolated office — the employee and employer mutually decided telework was the best option.
A paralegal with gastrointestinal issues had flare ups about four times a year. During these flare ups the employee was permitted to work from home, which allowed the employee to use the restroom as needed, but still perform all work tasks.
An insurance agent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would experience flashbacks and anxiety during the two hour commute to work. The employer granted telework as an accommodation, enabling the employee to give her full attention and energy to her work tasks.