Most university employees asking to work from home weren’t approved

  • In this photo taken Wednesday April 6, 2016 students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The water system serving the University is among more than two dozen in New Hampshire that have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once in the last three years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 7/31/2020 5:03:23 PM

Nearly 450 employees in the University System of New Hampshire applied for special accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, including working from home, for the fall semester due to COVID-19. 

The vast majority of those requests were not approved as requested. Instead, most professors and other staff were offered a “flexible work arrangement,” a designation that left some confused and concerned. 

The hundreds of requests for accommodations were a deluge compared to years past when typically just a few applications were filed, school officials said. In all, The University System fully approved fewer than one out of five applications for the fall semester. The rest were offered a flex option. Officials are still processing 74 applications.

“It is important to emphasize that UNH is a residential university and our commitment is to provide our students with in-person, face-to-face learning,” UNH Provost Wayne Jones said in a statement to staff Tuesday afternoon. 

Some faculty and staff aren’t confident to return to the classroom just yet. They worry that in-person classes could put their lives— and their families’ lives— at risk. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to make accommodations for employees that have a disability that puts them at high risk from COVID-19, as long as the accommodation does not present the employer with “undue hardship,” or a significant difficulty or expense, according to the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Some factors that might make someone susceptible to a severe case of COVID-19, aren’t necessarily categorized as a disability under ADA, like old age. The law defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”. 

A letter denying a request for an accommodation obtained by the Monitor stated that the flex-work approval “does not guarantee you a remote work assignment.” The rejection letter also said the college is required to “provide remote work assignments to colleagues who have ADA approved accommodations before giving them to those who have been approved for flex-work adjustments.”

Several employees said they were afraid without the legal backing of the ADA, the administration could rescind their flex-work accommodations without consequence. 

Cliff Brown, the president of the American Association of University Professors at UNH, said he is primarily concerned about the lack of communication between the administration and those applying for accommodations. He said it is unclear what qualifies employees for flex work and what flex-work exactly entails. 

“It feels like people have so many questions about how this is going to work out,” he said. 

Brown applied for ADA accommodation for the fall semester and was assigned a flex-work arrangement. The accommodation process stipulates that Brown should then have a meeting with the chair of his department or the dean of the college to determine the terms of his accommodation. However, as classes approach in less than a month, Brown still has still not had his meeting.

Jones said in his letter that he understands the accommodation process caused the staff “a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety” and the university is working to improve communication surrounding this issue. 

One professor at UNH who has an autoimmune disorder applied for reasonable accommodation to work from home in the fall. She has to take immunosuppressants for her disorder, which makes her vulnerable to severe complications if she contracts COVID-19.  

The disorder affects many aspects of her daily life, including walking, and therefore qualifies under the ADA as a disability. She received an accommodation for the same disability in 2017, which allowed her a closer parking spot.

However, this time, her request was not approved because she did not include a note from a doctor saying that “PPE would not suffice in mitigating risk,” despite the fact that this note was not part of the original application. The university offered her a flexible work arrangement.  She sent the requested letter from her doctor 11 days ago but has not heard back from the university. The original application, rejection letter, and supplemental doctor note were viewed by the Monitor.

Furthermore, during the process of denying her reasonable accommodation request, human resources illegally disclosed her disability to a dean, which they later apologized for in an email obtained by the Monitor. 

A research assistant at UNH also filled out a reasonable accommodation form in early July to work from home during the fall semester.  She had lymph nodes removed during breast cancer treatment which makes her immune system compromised.  This condition places her in one of the highest risk categories for contracting a serious illness from COVID-19. 

Last week, she found out her request was rejected because she also didn’t have a doctor’s letter specifying that PPE and social distancing wouldn’t be enough to protect her, according to her application and rejection letter, which were obtained by the Monitor

UNH Assistant Provost John Wallin said there was “no appeals process” for rejected requests, according to emails obtained by the Monitor.

A group of students at UNH sent an open letter to the president and provost of the university Monday night, demanding that the school does not force workers to risk their safety to return to work “for the sake of student preferences for an in-person instruction”. 

“Workers deserve access to accommodations for remote work that will keep them and their families safe,” the letter  read. “We are concerned for  our faculty, staff,    and teaching assistants.” 

Editor’s note: This article has been clarified to reflect that the University System considers offering a “flexible working arrangement” as an approval of an ADA request, not a denial.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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