Not that long ago, reflecting the views of labor unions, the federal government regarded telecommuting as something deeply suspect, even when (or especially when) both an employer and an employee were enthusiastic about it. As late as the Reagan era, as I recounted in this Reason piece a way back, the AFL-CIO had called for a moratorium on the practice, while the president of the Communications Workers of America warned in 1992 that allowing at-home employment was dangerous “particularly if that worker wants to work at home.” (A dispersed workforce, of course, can make it harder to organize unions.)
How times change. Now the ever-expanding scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is opening up the possibility that employers may be legally obliged to accept at-home work arrangements even when they see them as a bad idea. As Jon Hyman explains at Lexis/Nexis Employment Law and Mike Underwood at Employer Law Report, the federal court for the Southern District of Ohio has ruled that it is a question for a jury whether an employer improperly failed to accommodate a worker when it denied her request to work from home, based on asthma and chemical sensitivity to the perfumes of co-workers. Previous Sixth Circuit precedent had rejected any employer obligation to accept telecommuting other than in “very extraordinary” circumstances, but the court said that precedent needed to be revisited in light of the advance of time and technology, which has rendered telecommuting less “burdensome or untenable” to employers. The case is Core v. Champaign County Board of County Commissioners (PDF).
Notice the pattern? Views of telecommuting change, but what remains constant is the idea that the government should impose the result, rather than defer to the results of actual free contract between the two parties.