Remote Work: An Enduring Need for Disabled Workers in the Return to Office Era

company culture work life balance Jun 12, 2024
Path through a forest with a large tree blocking it.

When the pandemic happened, everyone suddenly had an accessibility need. For health and safety, every worker needed accommodations. For most of us, that looked like a remote work option. For heroes working at hospitals, that looked like new protocols and protective equipment. 

From paper pushers to company presidents, we all experienced what it was like to do our best at work with a need for a workplace accommodation. This is in sharp contrast with more recent return to office (RTO) initiatives.

Following the COVID era, the economy has started to recover. We had a period of recovery and growth in many industries. In-demand prospective employees gaining ground with their requests to work from home in new roles. But now, with tech layoffs and uncertainty, employers are increasing their demand for in-office days and return to office, some even offering incentives for employees to take up space in the office.

For physical and mental health reasons, you may perform better working remotely. Perhaps you have Long COVID, school-age kids, or use your former commute time to attend mental health therapy sessions in the evening. Or maybe you’re one of the 42.5 million Americans with disabilities trying to figure out how to move forward. Here’s what you need to know when speaking with your employer about return to office policies, remote work, accessibility, and accommodations.

What Are Accommodations at Work and ADA Accommodations?

Accommodations are the employer's fulfillment of reasonable requests to make a job accessible and performable for an employee. While this is covered under the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ADA and other legislation about workplace accommodations has vague language surrounding “reasonable accommodations.” 

 However, for many people with disabilities, including invisible disabilities, accommodations look like remote work or work from home (WFH) environments, some or part of the time. As you can imagine, return to office policies can conflict with this very real need.

How and When to Request Accommodations at Work

If you’re communicating with an existing employer or are about to start a new role, it’s best to send your accommodation request in writing (email works well), accompanied by a note from your doctor supporting the request. 

A doctor’s note or the disclosure of your disability or illness is not required, but if you are comfortable supplying it, it can help. This includes temporary accommodations if you’ve got an injury that heals, or if you’re pregnant. 

Things get murky when it comes to job interviews and being offered a new role. To prevent discrimination, it’s generally not advisable to disclose disabilities or accommodation needs when possible -- but this is rough when it comes to remote work. Let’s take a look at why. 

Remote Work as an Accommodation vs. a Nice-to-Have

Most workers prefer to work remotely when possible some or all of the time. Arguably, this type of flexibility is an accommodation everyone should have, ethically and legally, as it supports employees’ wellness and mental health. But for some workers, regardless of whether they needed an accommodation pre-COVID, remote work is an accommodation. 

If this is the case for you, you can use your judgment about disclosing remote work or a hybrid arrangement as an accommodation during the job interview process. This includes a pre-hire conversation about a return to office mandate.

One challenge here is the perception of disabled people: when most able-bodied people hear the word “disability,” they might think of a person in a wheelchair who receives disability benefits from the government instead of working. However, 22.5% of disabled Americans are in the workforce -- a number higher than usual undoubtedly due to the ability for employees to work remotely. 

However, many ‘company cultures’ still envision remote work as something indicative of laziness or an unwillingness to really do the work. It’s unfortunate that this mentality has persisted despite research indicating remote work often bolsters productivity -- and as companies focus on profit, it might make sense for them to reduce the amount of physical space required for offices to save money. They could reinvest their savings or consider using a portion of it to create or improve employee wellness programs instead, especially considering disability is often overlooked in requisite diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives

Employers and Return to Office Mandates: Don’t Be That Employer When it Comes to Remote Work Accommodations

Discrimination is real, and it makes sense that disabled employees might feel trepidation when asking for accommodations they are legally entitled to. To accommodate disabled employees, organizations can:

  • Be proactive about soliciting accommodation requests from all employees by sending a quarterly reminder to employees to submit accommodation requests.
  • Mention remote work as an accommodation during the interview and hiring process.
  • Give remote and hybrid work opportunities automatically, to all employees, whenever possible.
  • Ensure accurate literature about accommodations is readily available on your employee portal, along with your remote work policy and return to office mandate information.
  • Employ clear and specific sick time and/or PTO policies, as well as short-term and long-term disability insurance, and provide support for employees to understand the necessity of these benefits. 
  • Offer health benefits to part-time employees (large companies like Starbucks are capable of providing this benefit).

The more you advertise these benefits and take on a proactive mindset about them, the better equipped you are to attract and retain disabled employees and adhere to employee accommodation rights

What to do if your employer isn't on board with a remote work accommodation

While it may be clear to you and others that remote work can be an effective and reasonable accommodation in many circumstances, if your employer isn't budging, you may be wondering what the heck to do. 

At the top of the list - be willing to be persistent.  Sometimes, the saying the squeaky wheel gets the oil is true.  If your employer recognizes that you are not going to just fall in line because you truly do need the accommodation to do your best work, you be able to make progress. 

You might also consider consulting an employment attorney for help, ideally one well versed in disability law.  An attorney can guide you in how to best present your argument for working remotely as an accommodation as a first step.  If the company doesn't want to play ball, they can also advise whether you have a legitimate legal case. 

Finally, you could look for a more enlightened company to work for.  Job seeking isn't fun, but working somewhere that exacerbates health problems is less fun. If you choose to go this route, seeking a remote-first employer is likely your best move.

If you're ready to get serious about making your work life work for you, let's talk.  You can book a free intro call here.