Washington Labor Law Blog: Insights on the Law for Washington Employers

Accommodating Disabilities Affecting the Ability to Commute

Two recent cases show that employers must consider accommodating employees with disabilities affecting the ability to commute.

In Colwell v. Rite Aid, a cashier became blind in one eye, which made it difficult and dangerous for her to drive at night.  Colwell sued for failure to accommodate her disability when Rite Aid refused to schedule her for only day shifts.  The trial court concluded  that Rite Aid had no duty to accommodate Colwell’s limitations concerning her commute because the Americans with Disabilities Act was designed to only cover an employee’s ability to work in the workplace.  The Third Circuit disagreed.  It wrote:

… we hold as a matter of law that changing Colwell’s working schedule to day shifts in order to alleviate her disability-related difficulties in getting to work is a type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates.

On July 21st, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same result in a similar case.  In Livingston v. Fred Meyer Stores, a wine steward with a vision impairment that affected her ability to see after dark asked for a modified schedule during the fall and winter to minimize after dark driving.   She was discharged after she refused to work her scheduled late shift.

Following Colwell, the Ninth Circuit said that an employer has a duty to accommodate an employee’s limitations that affect the ability to get to and from work.

These cases make clear that employers should consider modifying an employee’s schedule when a disability is affecting the employee’s ability to commute.  Just how far the duty to accommodate commuting issues extends, though, is unclear.  For example, what if an employer has multiple locations in an area and the employee has a long commute.  Must the employer consider transferring the employee to a location closer to home if the employee has an impairment that limits the amount of time that can be spent driving?  Does it matter if there is public transportation the employee could use?

We will have to wait for other cases to understand the full scope of an employer’s duty.  For now, employers faced with accommodation requests concerning commuting should consider whether the accommodation is a reasonable one and whether providing it would cause the employer an undue hardship.

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