Overtime work is essential in many industries. As a result, employers frequently structure job roles to require mandatory overtime. Although mandatory overtime can present difficult questions when an employee has a disability that disqualifies them from working overtime, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in McNeil v. Union Pac. R.R., No. 18-2333, recently confirmed that overtime work can be an essential function of a job in appropriate circumstances.
In McNeil, the Eighth Circuit evaluated whether Union Pacific could lawfully terminate a disabled emergency dispatcher who could no longer perform the mandatory overtime required of all Union Pacific emergency dispatchers. The plaintiff brought suit against Union Pacific following her termination and alleged disability discrimination under federal and state law. In the district court, Union Pacific moved for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability because she was unable to perform an essential function of the position due to her inability to work overtime. The district court agreed, and granted Union Pacific’s motion.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that the plaintiff’s ability for overtime work was an essential function of her job as a dispatcher. In doing so, the Eighth Circuit emphasized the authority of an employer to establish the essential functions of a job. To defeat a “failure to accommodate” discrimination claim, an employer must prove that the function at issue is, indeed, essential. Notably, the district court in McNeil relied on the company’s clear scheduling and attendance policies, which expressly articulated that overtime work is “mandatory.” The McNeil court also highlighted the public safety concern of always having a capable dispatcher ready and on duty. If plaintiff were permitted to avoid working overtime on an ongoing basis, then that burden would fall on another dispatcher to absorb. Such a situation, the court reasoned, could create a public safety risk.