By Christopher A. Riddle
Remote work meaningfully facilitates inclusion of people with disabilities in the labor market.
But, to truly fulfill its promise, employers must also take steps to ensure that remote work accommodations are not made at the expense of the employee, simply because their labor is conducted in their own home.
Remote Work Promotes Inclusion
Demand for remote work is increasing and becoming a presumed “new normal.”
Some numbers suggest that office attendance is only at approximately 33 precent of what it was pre-pandemic. Many people desire more flexible work hours, freedom to live where they desire, and the ability to avoid costly and time-consuming commutes.
For many people with disabilities, the ability to work remotely represents far more significant opportunities. Commutes for people with disabilities are not only, on average, far longer than their non-disabled counterparts, but in some regards, can be life altering. Proximity to accessible forms of public transit can drastically limit where one can live and the cost associated with doing so. Not only are commutes longer and more difficult for many disabled people, but there is a tremendous personal cost in terms of energy expenditure that many non-disabled people do not even begin to conceptualize.
The normalization of remote work has enabled many people with disabilities to be meaningfully included in workplace culture for perhaps the first time. Often seen as a last-step workplace accommodation, some suggest that remote work could be reasonably inferred to be an accommodation under the ADA. With an increased demand from all employees — regardless of disability status — to work remotely, requests for such accommodations may be seen as less stigmatizing and easier to provide.
Who is Responsible for an Accessible Remote Work Environment?
That said, the shift to remote work does not come without costs. Here I argue that employers should bear the financial burden for ensuring an employee’s work environment within their home enables them to complete their job.
First and foremost, not all employees’ homes are suitable for remote work. Recent research indicates that, prior to the pandemic, households that worked remotely spent more on housing compared to non-remote households. The authors of this analysis suggest this increased expenditure is due to the need for larger homes to provide adequate space for remote work (e.g., home offices). They suggest that employees would need around 10% higher compensation to participate in remote work.
Housing is not the only cost that remote employees must bear. Some remote employees have observed a 25% increase in their utilities bills with a shift to working from home.
People with disabilities may have further costs associated with the shift to remote work. Simply because one has an accessible home, does not mean it meets accessibility needs for remote work. Employees may require adaptive devices to facilitate their remote participation.
The costs enumerated above should be borne not by employees, but employers. Importantly, employers stand to save money with a reduced physical footprint. For example, they may see a reduction in their bottom line due to a decrease in office size and utilities.
Thus, it can reasonably be inferred that remote work is less costly for many employers, whilst simultaneously promoting both a more inclusive environment, as well as an option that many employees — disabled or not — are increasingly preferring. Without having to make individualized accommodations for people with disabilities in an often-retrofitted manner, employers can hire qualified candidates and ensure inclusion through remote work opportunities.
To meaningfully ensure inclusion, employers should use their cost savings to cover expenses associated with the shift to remote work, including increased housing costs, increased utilities bills, and work-related technology purchases. In the context of accommodating employees with disabilities, employers should also cover the costs of assistive technologies, and other at-home accommodations needed for work, which may include office furniture, among other things.
Simply because the site of an employee’s labor is changing and is only bound to change more in the future, this does not imply that the duty to accommodate is any less the employer’s. If an employee must complete a task as part of their work, and accommodations are necessary in order to do so, the associated costs are the obligation of the employer.
Whether concerned primarily with dignity, equality, or contributive justice, the extent to which meaningful work plays a role in one’s flourishing is rarely questioned — it is vital. People with disabilities have historically had to fight for opportunities for meaningful employment, as well as the necessary accommodations to thrive within that environment. With unemployment rates at almost double that of non-disabled employees, and difficulty receiving accommodations in the workplace, obtaining and keeping meaningful employment is oftentimes seen to be a major hurdle in the promotion of well-being for disabled people.
While we ought to embrace the shift to remote work as an opportunity to accommodate and include more people with disabilities in the workplace, we need to be cautious about how this shift is regarded. The responsibility, put pointedly, remains on the employer to accommodate, whether the employee is at home, or in the workplace.
Christopher A. Riddle, PhD, is Professor & Chair of Philosophy at Utica University, NY, where he is also Director of the Applied Ethics Institute.