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Overtime May Be an Essential Function

In McNeil v. Union Pac. R. R., the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that overtime may be an essential function of a position.

Tasha McNeil worked as Critical Call Dispatcher for Union Pacific (Union). Her department was a 24-hour emergency and non-emergency dispatch center, similar to 911. Dispatchers had to be present at all times during their shifts until relieved by the next dispatcher. Their shifts were 8.25 hours each and subject to mandatory overtime based on staffing needs. Dispatchers in the middle of a call at the end of a shift had to complete it. McNeil had the daytime shift, which was considered the most demanding and required the most overtime. While on a leave to care for her sick mother, McNeil was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She returned to work with a physician’s note recommending that she work a temporarily reduced schedule of eight-hour shifts, with four (instead of the usual five) shifts per week. Union accommodated her request because it was of short duration. However, McNeil did not return to work for an extended time. When she was ultimately ready to return, her doctor indefinitely restricted her to morning shifts and no overtime. Union responded that it could not accommodate the overtime restrictions and there were no open daytime positions available. McNeil was terminated and she sued for discrimination, including violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Employees who can perform the essential functions of their position with or without accommodation are entitled to protection under the ADA. “An employer’s mandatory overtime requirement has been recognized as an essential job function” and “[a]n employee who cannot meet the attendance requirements…cannot be considered a ‘qualified’ individual protected by the ADA,” asserted the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing previous court rulings. Union’s guidebook set forth the requirement that dispatchers work overtime as well as the requirement that they arrive early and leave late after shifts; it was necessary to ensure that dispatchers were always available as a matter of public safety concern. Union’s agreement to temporarily exclude McNeil from overtime did not render the job function non-essential. A permanent or long term exclusion from overtime created a significant burden on other dispatchers and the company. McNeil did not provide any company comparators that were unable to work overtime indefinitely.