Know your rights when it comes to navigating your disability or health condition at work. A lawyer shares key information and mistakes to avoid.
Almost all employment contracts in the United States are for at-will employment. In other words, American workers can be terminated for a wide variety of reasons, but not an illegal reason.
One of the illegal reasons is wrongful termination based on a disability or health condition.
In most situations, employers can’t fire you because of medical conditions or disabilities. The law provides many protections against wrongful termination. If you think you might be a victim of employment discrimination, we’ll help you understand your rights.
First, we’ll cover employment law that relates to medical conditions. Then, we’ll go over all the necessary steps you should take before pursuing legal action.
Can I Be Fired Because of a Medical Condition?
Yes, you can, if you don’t protect yourself and follow the law. Just having a medical condition or disability doesn’t mean you can’t be fired. Just like your employer, you have to know your rights and follow legal requirements.
Even if you have health problems, you still have to do your job to the best of your ability. Poor performance of your job duties will result in your termination no matter what.
For example, imagine that you were paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. If your job is writing instruction manuals and you fall behind on deadlines, that performance problem is not related to your disability. In this situation you can legally be fired.
Insubordination is usually still a fireable offense. Though an outburst could be explained by some mental conditions, a bad attitude or directly challenging your supervisor is typically behavior that will also get you fired whether you have a medical condition or not.
But rest assured — federal and state laws prevent you from being unfairly fired because of health reasons. You still have to meet your employer halfway, though. You need to be able to do your job with reasonable accommodations, and you have to be honest with your employer about your situation.
Find Out Laws That Apply to Your Situation
All workers should be aware of two federal laws governing medical conditions and employment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) apply throughout the country.
- The ADA applies to claims regarding your personal disability.
- FMLA applies when a family member has a medical condition and you need leave from work to take care of them.
The ADA and FMLA are widely known, but a federal court may not be the best place to file your claim. Additionally, there are laws in every state regarding employment discrimination claims. These laws are often similar to the ADA or FMLA, but may be more strict.
State laws can never provide less protection than federal laws. However, many states pass laws to provide more protection to workers than federal laws alone.
Consider the following scenarios:
- An executive assistant in California has carpal tunnel syndrome, and therefore is unable to type for long periods. She is afraid to tell her employer because typing and other computer work is a large part of her job. Though she could ask for voice-control software or other technology to fix her problem, she remains silent.
- An office supply salesman in rural Arkansas is diagnosed with severe social anxiety, which prevents him from fully engaging other people in conversation. He is afraid of the impact his condition may have on his performance.
- A New York file clerk’s spouse suffered a stroke, and he needs to take leave so that he can care for her. He does not have vacation time saved up and is concerned that if he asks for time off, he may be laid off.
All of these scenarios involve medical issues potentially threatening a job by preventing a significant part of the job from being completed.
Though all of these situations are serious, they can be fixed. The first thing in any case to consider is the actual state laws where you work, in addition to federal laws that apply in every United States jurisdiction.
Here’s how the state and federal laws would apply for our example cases:
- The executive assistant with carpal tunnel limitations lives in California. Besides having a robust system of disability laws, California juries are typically more friendly to employees, while federal jury verdicts more often go for employers.
- The Arkansas salesman may want to give federal court a second look, as Arkansas has some concerning statistics regarding mental health treatment. The EEOC offers experience and guidance on mental health issues, and federal courts benefit from that experience. The ADA may also allow the salesman to have a service dog to help with his anxiety, whereas Arkansas laws tend to focus more on service dogs for physical disabilities.
- The file clerk lives in New York, which has a law mandating paid family leave: the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Act. This is far superior to the federal FMLA, which only allows unpaid leave.
The facts of your medical condition and potential firing are key as you look at which laws apply to you. For example, if you have suffered a serious health condition as a result of an on-the-job injury, that is generally a worker’s compensation/employer retaliation issue, which involves different laws than a discrimination claim under ADA, FMLA, or state law.
You can get specific information about laws for your situation from both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or EEOC — a federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination) and your state’s employment commission.
3 Ways to Protect Your Job If You Have a Medical Condition
You can’t control your employer’s behavior, but you should understand their legal obligations so you can properly protect your job. Here are three steps you can take that legally protect you if you have a medical condition.
1. Ask for Reasonable Accommodations Early and Often
Many workers are afraid of talking about medical conditions or disabilities because they don’t want to seem “difficult.” This is absolutely the wrong decision.
If you have a serious health condition, you should address it early. Do not wait until there is a perceived work performance issue. Mentioning a medical condition only in response to criticism may cause your supervisor to assume you are only making excuses.
You should ask your supervisor for help as soon as you know you will need it.
Under the ADA, employers must make “reasonable accommodations” to eligible employees so that those workers can perform their job duties. As long as those accommodations don’t cause “undue hardship” to the employer, they must be provided under the ADA.
What qualifies as a reasonable accommodation or an undue hardship will vary.
According to the EEOC, examples of reasonable accommodations are:
- A deaf applicant may need a sign language interpreter during the job interview.
- An employee with diabetes may need regularly scheduled breaks during the workday to eat properly and monitor blood sugar and insulin levels.
- A blind employee may need someone to read information posted on a bulletin board.
- An employee with cancer may need leave to have radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
Most employers are aware of the ADA and other medical condition laws. Your employer may have a reasonable accommodation available, but they won’t present it to you if you don’t ask.
2. Document Communications With Your Company About Your Medical Condition
Any civil trial attorney will tell you that it’s always important to keep good notes. Records with names, dates, and other crucial details can give you the edge in any legal dispute. Employment claims are no different.
This advice is critical when discussing a medical condition or disability with your employer. Requests for help, accommodations, or unpaid leave should all be in writing. Those writings should have reliable indications of time and delivery.
If your medical condition is causing problems with your work or your supervisor, you will need documentation of those.
Email is especially good for keeping detailed, reliable records of conversations. A read receipt is helpful, but not necessary. (Email servers already record recipients and time sent on every message.) Sometimes, conversations may happen in person or on the phone. In that case, you should always confirm what you discussed in writing.
3. Take Care of Your Health
You have a medical condition that requires consistent health care. Above all else, keep seeing your doctor, eating healthy, and exercising appropriately. Don’t lapse on doctor visits or skip medication. It could cost you even more than your good health.
You can legally be fired if your work performance slips, even when poor performance is a result of not managing your condition. For example, let’s say you have severe narcolepsy controlled by medication. Your medication enables you to perform all tasks with minimal risk to you or your job.
Now let’s say that, because your medication is expensive, you decide to start halving doses to make it last longer. If that lesser dose caused you to fall asleep while working, that could make your employer fire you. Prevent a termination by taking care of yourself, sticking to your medication schedule, and listening to your doctor’s advice.
Common Mistakes to Avoid at Work
Just as there are things you can do to protect yourself and your job, there are actions that can hurt you. When you must discuss your health condition, steer clear of these common errors.
1. Don’t Get Combative
Your health is a very personal topic. It’s easy for discussions to become emotionally charged even before employment discrimination is discussed.
Most employers mean well and want to work with you. Rigidity or antagonism will make working together difficult. It may also cause you to lose your job simply for insubordination.
If your employer is hostile, it’s even more important for you to be civil. An adversarial employer will use your words against you later. They will try to paint you in the worst possible light.
Although health issues are difficult to talk about, it’s always better to keep a cool head. Work with your employer as a partner rather than an enemy.
2. Don’t Use Your Medical Condition as a Response to Criticism
Many of us have difficulty responding well to even well-intended criticism. It may be tempting to explain bad performance or frequent absenteeism by bringing up a health condition. But don’t do it unless there is clear, verifiable evidence of the problem.
If you went to the hospital, or a doctor wrote a note explaining what happened, discussing your medical condition may be helpful. Otherwise, steer clear.
While you may have had a crushing migraine that prevented you from completing your tasks on time for three weeks straight, your word alone will not mean much (legally) to your supervisor, and could move you closer to termination. These incidents may even weaken legitimate disability discrimination claims you make later on.
A better practice is to take constructive criticism for what it is: an opportunity to grow. Rather than making excuses or arguing that your supervisor is wrong, try to understand how to fix performance issues in a way that is possible for you with your disability. Your company will appreciate the effort and be more willing to help.
3. Don’t Vent or Gossip
Talking with your co-workers about things that are important to you is a good way to relieve stress. When the subject is your health condition, though, you can get yourself into trouble.
First, your medical information is private as a matter of law. Discussing private medical issues might make it look like you waived your privacy rights. That could be both embarrassing and costly — embarrassing when your private conversation is exposed, and costly if your private conversation ends your employment or makes you lose a lawsuit.
Discussions that you have with co-workers are not private and may be used against you later in a lawsuit. A company may even try to use these conversations to show that you have made conflicting claims or been dishonest.
As with all health conditions, discretion is important. Issues involving your health and its effect on your job should be kept between you and your doctor. Only discuss it with appropriate representatives of your company when necessary.
Do the Best Job You Can Do
Workers of all ages in all 50 states deal with a variety of disabilities and medical conditions at work. While the laws and requirements surrounding these issues can be complicated, they are not new.
Knowing the law, discussing your medical condition appropriately, and mitigating conflict with your employer will help you keep your job and (hopefully) avoid a lawsuit.
In the event that you need more help, talk to an experienced employment attorney in your state as soon as possible.
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