Remote working: not practical to work from home?
New case highlights the importance of employers properly considering requests for remote working when reasonable adjustments need to be made.
A GP receptionist who suffered from a disability, namely, microvascular angina, has successfully brought a claim for disability discrimination.
During the pandemic she requested to work from home due to her disability which placed her at high risk for Covid. The Practice claimed that the employee was not allowed to work from home as she was required to perform tasks such as opening and closing the surgery, opening post, chaperoning patients and CPR.
Early on in the pandemic, guidance was issued to GP’s which set out that risk assessments should be carried out for disabled employees to determine whether any reasonable adjustments would be needed. Despite being aware of the employee’s disability, the Practice failed to carry out a relevant risk assessment, resulting in no reasonable adjustments being made.
The local NHS Commissioning Group had made recommendations that any high risk employee should automatically be able to work from home and a system should be implemented in order to facilitate this, including providing laptops to employees and diverting phone lines.
Following this the Practice Manager had emailed to obtain a laptop for the employee and had chased this on a further three occasions. There was no evidence however that a laptop was provided or a phone line was set up for the employee, which resulted in her being unable to work from home.
The Employment Tribunal held that the receptionist was discriminated against when she was not allowed to work remotely during the pandemic.
It was held that she was placed at a “substantial disadvantage” in comparison to persons who were not disabled. This was due to the fact that the Practice failed to provide her with a laptop or set up a phone line so calls could be diverted to enable her to work from home, especially when the work she carried out was available, and could be performed at home.
They found that the Practice could have reasonably provided her with a laptop, diverted a phone line to her home and if necessary, reasonably have reallocated work amongst other reception staff in order to enable her to work from home but they failed to do so.
The Tribunal also rejected the reasons and any evidence provided by the Practice for not allowing her to work from home.
The surgery was ordered to pay £45,000 to the former employee for failing to make reasonable adjustments, discrimination arising from disability, health and safety detriment and to account for unpaid holiday pay.
What this means for you
The case demonstrates the length employers need to go to in making reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities and ensuring that they are accommodated accordingly. Placing them at a detriment will only result in employers being significantly penalised for failing to make any adjustments that could quite easily have been made. To minimise the risk, employers should consider carrying out risk assessments to ensure that where necessary, reasonable adjustments are made.
Employers should remain alert to the need to protect the health and safety of their employees rather than allowing employees to take it upon themselves to protect them from any imminent threats to their own health.
Interestingly, before the pandemic many employers were reluctant to allow employees to work from home. The pandemic saw a significant shift to the vast majority of the workforce working remotely almost overnight, even in jobs where for a period of time many employers felt that they could not be carried out at home.
Moving forward, employers are likely to be in a position where it will become difficult to refuse a work from home request, especially where it has been demonstrated that many roles can now be carried out remotely. The Tribunals position suggests that they feel roles can be adapted, even if this means sharing tasks across the workforce in order to allow employees to work from home, and even if only for part of a week rather than entirely remotely.
The main takeaway from this case is that employers need to consider the position more carefully before refusing a request from an employee to work remotely, especially if they have a disability.
If you have any employment law queries on the changes, please contact a member of our multi-award winning Employment Team on 0330 323 5292
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