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Must an employer accommodate an employee’s commute under the ADA?

June 13, 2012

By Anthony Kaylin 

Regan began working for a Michigan automotive supplier in May 2005 as a temporary contract worker in the position of Prototype Seat Builder at the company’s facility in Troy. In July 2006, the company hired Regan for the position as a permanent employee. At that time, the typical work hours for a Prototype Seat Builder were 6:00 a.m. to 3:00p.m.

When Regan began working for the company she lived with her husband in Oxford, 24 miles from the facility. Around January 2008, Regan’s husband took a new job and the two of them moved to the town of Perry, 79 miles from the Troy facility. According to Regan, her new commute took between two and four hours. Regan has been diagnosed with narcolepsy and there was no question as to the legitimacy of disability.

In 2008, the company’s Director of Engineering Shared Services determined that the work schedule in Regan’s department was not productive because the materials needed for their work did not arrive from other departments until after its 6:00 a.m. start. It made the early morning schedule inefficient. Stuart changed the department’s standard work hours to 7:00 4:00 p.m. for productivity purposes, effective September 29, 2008.

Regan informed her supervisor that her narcolepsy would make it difficult for her to work the new hours because she would be commuting in heavier traffic. In her deposition, Regan explained that she gets tired more quickly driving in heavier traffic. Because she expects the commute to take longer due to heavier traffic, she would need to pull over and rest during the drive. She requested that she be able to continue working from 6:00 3:00 p.m., or to work from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. without taking a lunch break. The company denied the request.

Regan’s supervisor told her she could apply to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or quit. Regan also told the HR manager about her difficulty with the new hours. The HR manager also told Regan to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or quit.

Regan quit and sued, alleging that the company’s refusal to let her work an altered schedule violated the federal and state disabilities acts and civil rights acts. But the district court granted summary judgment for the company on all claims.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the district court’s ruling.  This was a case of first impression for the 6th Circuit. Citing other circuits, the court found that although an employer is required to make reasonable accommodations to eliminate barriers for a disabled employee in the workplace, the employer is not required to eliminate barriers outside the workplace that make it more difficult for the employee to get to and from work. 

The 6th Circuit specifically ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require the company to accommodate Regan’s request for a commute during more convenient hours. Also, a proposal of a modified work schedule for purposes of commuting during hours with allegedly lighter traffic is not a reasonable accommodation.

Employer note: Employers have the right to set work hours and policies.  According to the 6th Circuit, the employer does not have to deal with issues external to the workplace. That it is the employee’s responsibility.  In this case, the request for a more convenient commute is not the issue for the employer, but for the employee who took a job with the company. The employee is responsible to be at work.  In this case, it probably did not help that Regan voluntarily moved 55 miles farther away from the plant.

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