Remote Work Request Sparks First-of-Its-Kind COVID-19 Lawsuit

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

September 14, 2021

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing an employer, claiming it discriminated by firing an employee for requesting a remote work arrangement to accommodate her disability. This first-of-its-kind COVID-19 lawsuit by the EEOC is likely only the opening salvo on this issue as more employers require their employees to return to their physical work sites.

From March 2020 through June 2020, ISS Facility Services required all its employees to work remotely four days per week due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the company reopened its Georgia facility, one of its health and safety managers requested an accommodation to work remotely two days per week and to take frequent breaks while working onsite due to a pulmonary condition.

According to the plaintiff, this condition placed her at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Her job duties also required her to work in close contact with other employees. As a result, she made a request for a remote work accommodation to the company's HR department.

ISS denied the manager's accommodation request for remote work and fired her shortly afterwards.

The EEOC's federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Georgia contends that ISS's conduct violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It also noted that some other employees had been allowed to continue working remotely.

"Denying a reasonable accommodation and terminating an employee because of her disability clearly violates the ADA at any time," said the EEOC's Regional Attorney for its Atlanta district office. "In light of the additional risks to health and safety created by COVID-19, it is particularly concerning that an employer would take this action several months into a global pandemic."

ISS claims that it terminated the manager for performance issues. But the EEOC counters that the company never advised the plaintiff of performance concerns at any point before her termination. The case is a reminder of the importance of taking remote work accommodation requests seriously as hybrid work arrangements become more common.