The Fight Over Return-to-Office 

The return-to-office clash between employees and employers is escalating, marked by a rising number of disability discrimination charges, particularly concerning mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This surge is linked to employers mandating a return to physical workplaces and rejecting requests for exemptions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports a minimum 16% increase in charges related to discrimination against individuals with these mental health conditions between 2021 and 2022. Data from state civil-rights agencies also reveal that disability-related complaints, encompassing various conditions, have surpassed previous top grievances like retaliation and race discrimination.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated mental health challenges have amplified this trend. Simultaneously, the push for employees to return to office settings has triggered a surge in accommodation requests. While most requests were approved in 2021, approval rates have dipped to 91.8% in the first half of the current year.

Employers that denied remote work accommodations to employees with mental health conditions are facing legal action by the EEOC. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, aimed to facilitate the inclusion of disabled individuals in the workforce through reasonable accommodations. However, addressing mental health accommodation requests poses unique difficulties, given restrictions on probing into an employee’s specific disability and concerns about distinguishing between personal preferences and genuine mental health needs.

Many employers are eager to restore in-office work, citing increased productivity, innovation, and collaboration. Some employees, however, prefer remote work due to health considerations, including mental health concerns, leading to a contentious return-to-office policy.

Employees have long sought accommodations like remote work, but this trend gained traction during the pandemic. Reversing it has become more challenging for companies that previously required remote work as a reasonable accommodation. EEOC Commissioner Keith Sonderling emphasizes that refusing to engage in the interactive process with employees requesting remote work due to mental health diagnoses can amount to discrimination.

In summary, the return-to-office dispute is evolving into a disability dispute, with employees increasingly asserting their rights to accommodations for mental health conditions. This dynamic reflects the ongoing challenges faced by both workers and employers in navigating changing work arrangements and disability rights.


About The Author

Jonathan Franklin
Chief Counsel @ FLG
WormGPT – The Generative AI Tool for CybercriminalsEU Reaches Historic Agreement on AI Regulation Framework

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