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Family Leave and Other Rights for Workers With Health Needs

Understanding resources for working with an acute or chronic health condition.

Key points

  • If your workplace offers FMLA, you may take 12 weeks off each year for your own serious health condition.
  • If your condition is listed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is against the law for you to be fired for having that condition.
  • If a coworker harasses you because you have an accommodation, talk to your supervisor or human resources department.

This post is Part 2 of a series. For more information, read Part 1 of my health conditions at work series.

Living and working with a chronic or acute condition may require you to tap into additional resources available through your workplace or the state or federal government.

What is family leave, and should you take it?

“Family leave” is time off work provided by another U.S. law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law applies to certain employers, including

  • Private employers who have 50 workers or more at least part of each year (20 weeks).
  • Government agencies.
  • Schools and educational agencies.

If your workplace offers FMLA, you may take 12 weeks (three months) off each year for your own serious health condition. You may take up to 26 weeks if you are caring for a military service member who has a serious health condition.

Learn more about who can take family leave and how to apply.

You may want to talk with your doctor about whether you should take family leave and, if so, when. Many people consider taking family leave for the birth or adoption of a child, but family leave may be used to manage chronic or acute illnesses, caregiving, and more.

Can you be fired for having a chronic medical condition?

If your condition or disability is listed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or qualifies as a covered disability, it is against the law for you to be fired specifically for having that condition. This includes long COVID, which qualifies as a disability under the ADA. Learn more about how long COVID symptoms are treated under federal law. It must “substantially limit” one or more of the activities of daily life, and you will need an individual assessment to determine whether this is the case for you. Because COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, researchers are still gathering information on its long-term effects, and different countries and health organizations have different definitions of long COVID. Don’t hesitate to talk with your health care provider if you believe you have this condition.

However, you can be let go for other reasons, just as other employees can. Your best option is knowing the rules, following them, and keeping in touch with your manager and human resources department. Your workplace is required to make reasonable accommodations but not to guarantee you a job.

This can be very stressful, as many people walk a fine line between keeping their jobs and taking the time needed to recover. This emotional and mental load can take its toll. For example, for those undergoing cancer treatment, many think of “financial toxicity” as the cost of the treatment itself. However, it is much more than that, including the impacts of the treatment on your ability to work, manage the costs of housing and transportation, and address new expenses for healthful foods, extra rest, and other self-care to improve your quality of life and your chances of a good treatment outcome.

What is discrimination and how do you handle it?

If a coworker bothers or harasses you because you have an accommodation, please talk to your supervisor or the human resources department at work. This behavior is a form of discrimination, and it is against the law.

If you believe you may have been treated differently because you or someone close to you has a disability, you can report this to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: (800) 669-4000 (Voice), (800) 669-6820 (TDD).

You may also want to talk with a lawyer who specializes in employment law and disability.

Should I change jobs?

This can sometimes be the answer if you’re working with a disability or chronic condition. Elmore was a director in a fast-paced Seattle tech company. He also had chronic colitis. After seeing many specialists, he learned the stress of his job was probably a major factor in his bowel condition. He and his wife took a radical step: They bought a piece of land in the country where she could continue her own rewarding and relatively stress-free job remotely while Elmore started a small farm. Three years later, his symptoms are almost gone.

Another option is talking with your doctor about vocational rehabilitation. Also called “voc rehab,” this type of counseling is available through government offices in your state.

Randy, a realtor, was severely hurt in a car crash. His injuries included a traumatic brain injury that left him unable to socialize, maintain his calendar, and work in sales successfully. He went to his state’s vocational rehabilitation office to get testing and learn which jobs would be a better fit for his skills after the injury.

It is also vital for managers and employers to be knowledgeable about the rights of their employees with health conditions. Following are two questions that they may have.

Can I refuse to hire someone who has a medical condition?

If you believe someone’s condition or disability creates a “risk of substantial harm” to their own or someone else’s health and safety, yes. For example, someone with a disorder that causes regular seizures might be at risk of causing “substantial harm” as a truck driver.

There must be a “risk of substantial harm,” not just the chance harm could happen in the future. The risk must exist even if accommodations are made. If you have questions about a potential employee’s condition, talk with your human resources department or contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

How much time off do I have to give an employee?

If your company is required to offer FMLA, employees may qualify for up to 12 weeks in one 12-month period. If the employee has accrued paid sick time and vacation time, it is possible they could take that time off, too.

Talk with human resources to learn how much time you are legally required to give. They can also help you monitor how much time an employee is taking, if needed.

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