What Do You Think: Could County Assessor Perform Job Remotely for COVID-19?

The past two years have changed how people think about work and where it gets done.

But not all jobs can be done remotely, and as a federal court recently had to decide, what makes in-person work essential depends on the job and the work involved.

A weatherization program assessor for a county started teleworking at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After he had worked remotely for several months, the county told him he needed to return to the office and resume his field work, which involved helping residents make their homes more energy efficient.

However, the assessor was immunocompromised from a pulmonary embolism lung dysfunction, so he asked to continue teleworking. The assessor’s doctor reported that the assessor was at substantial risk of serious injury or death if he contracted COVID-19 and advised that the assessor should not perform on-site inspections due to his exposure risk.

The county refused the assessor’s request to continue working remotely and then rejected his leave request before terminating him. According to the assessor, he encountered hostility in his discussions with the county, and his request for leave was denied without an explanation.

Following his termination, the assessor sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that the county failed to accommodate him for his lung impairment.

Failure to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability constitutes discrimination under the ADA, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.

The ADA defines “qualified individual” as an employee “who with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of” the job.

Could the assessor perform the essential functions of his job while teleworking?

  1. Yes. He was able to work remotely for a period, and he performed his job adequately during that time.
  2. No. As an assessor, on-site inspections are necessary and can’t be performed remotely.

If you selected A, you were on the same page as the court in Gentile v. County of DuPage, No. 21-cv-673 (N.D. Ill. 02/04/22), which held that a jury could decide that the assessor could perform his job remotely as a reasonable accommodation.

One of the main factors in the court’s analysis was a lack of information on how essential on-site inspections were to the job, particularly because other employees continued to telework after the assessor was terminated.

The court also pointed out that the assessor was able to perform all functions of his job while he was teleworking, with no indication that work wasn’t getting done. While more evidence might have shown that the assessor’s requested accommodation wasn’t reasonable, the county didn’t produce enough to convince the court that the assessor couldn’t go forward to trial with his claims.

This feature does not provide legal advice.