Many government workers don't realize they can use disability law to work from home

Many government employees are unaware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows them to request work-from-home accommodations based on mental health conditions.

This knowledge gap, if remediated, has the potential to reshape the “Return to Office” landscape amid demands by the Biden administration and congressional Republicans that federal government workers return to work in a traditional office setting.

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and this includes mental health conditions. Keith Sonderling, commissioner at the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told me earlier this year 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 the elimination of commutes, increased productivity and better work-life balance. As Sonderling points out, there is no inherent legal right to remote work. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 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, a spokesperson for the commission, 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 landmark legal settlement, ISS Facility Services, Inc. recently agreed to a $47,500 payment to resolve an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging ADA violations. The case centered on the company’s refusal to permit a disabled employee to continue part-time remote work.

In another example, the commission filed a complaint against a Georgia company for terminating a marketing manager who had sought to work remotely three days a week to manage her anxiety.

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 post-traumatic stress disorder. If more employees were informed, the current return-to-office dynamics could shift dramatically.

To successfully claim a work-from-home 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 return-to-office and hybrid work in government agencies, I have observed firsthand government leaders’ concerns about this issue. Many are eager to bring government employees back to the office. However, they must navigate the legal requirements and potential influx of accommodation requests, especially as the issues surrounding mental health accommodation 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.”

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 return-to-office 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 is CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of “Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams.

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