Working while simultaneously managing a documented medical condition can be one of the biggest challenges in the employment arena, but it doesn’t have to hinder a career. That’s because federal laws are in place to both protect and provide employees with specific rights and remedies that keep them safe and employed – even while managing a verifiable medical condition.

One of the biggest issues involved in working with a documented medical condition is the issue of leave. Federal laws can ensure that employees with medical conditions get sufficient time off for doctor’s visits and more, but it is crucially important that employees are aware of these rights. Without such knowledge, it’s possible that employers could unlawfully prevent an employee from getting the fair treatment they deserve.

What is leave and why are employees entitled to it?

Leave is quite simple in theory. In reference to employment, it refers to time off. Specific laws govern the types of leave available for workers in the U.S. as well as eligibility requirements and special circumstances which may warrant exceptions to general rules concerning leave.

One such federal law is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA outlines the general provisions for employees who need time off to care themselves or close relatives due to serious medical conditions.

Another federal law which addresses leave issues is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA covers leave for those with disabilities. As defined by the Act, a disability is a condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as driving, eating, sleeping or even getting out of bed). Note that this is different from the FMLA’s ‘serious medical condition’ in a number of ways.

Employees are entitled to leave only if they are in compliance with eligibility requirements worked into the language of these protective statutes. For instance, the FMLA makes all employees who have been employed at least 12 months prior to the leave request eligible to receive unpaid leave. It also requires that the employee have logged at least 1250 service hours in the 12 months prior to the leave request.

What is a documented medical condition and does documentation matter?

The importance of documentation of a medical condition must be stressed. An employee may have a medical condition, but without documentation, it may be difficult (although, not impossible) for an employee to request their rights be upheld under federal law. The ADA requires that medical conditions be documented or proven in order for the law to apply in some instances.

The FMLA also has a similar requirement. Both these laws stress the need for the medical conditions to be evidenced by a doctor or medical professional in order for an employee to obtain access to legal remedy. For instance, the FMLA states that an employer may require an employee to present certification from a health service provider when the leave requested involves either the employee or a close relative of the employee.

What types of leave are available for those with documented medical conditions?

According to the FMLA, employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This 12 weeks may be taken in any one 12 month period. There are a number of specific reasons for taking such leave:

  1. To care for a newborn child,
  2. To care for an adopted child or to receive a child from adoption services,
  3.  To care for a spouse, son, daughter or parent with a serious condition or illness or
  4.  Due to a serious condition which makes it impossible for an employee to perform one or more essential aspects of his or her job.

These approved situations warrant employee leave in private companies with 50 or more employees, and in public entities regardless of the number of employees. Also, note that the leave situations depend on an employee’s serious health condition. According to the FMLA a serious health condition is one that involves long term care or is an “illness, injury or impairment or physical or mental condition” that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider.

Leave as Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

Leave may also be granted under the provisions of the ADA provided certain conditions are met. The ADA states that employers must provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities as defined by the Act. The accommodations need not be so extensive in nature that they cause undue hardship to the business or to business operations. If the requested accommodation is likely to cause undue hardship, an employer must prove this in order to avoid liability for a disability discrimination claim.

Under the ADA, leave for a documented medical condition would be considered a reasonable accommodation. Often the leave supported by the FMLA and the reasonable accommodation leave mentioned in the ADA can be combined to go beyond the 12-week limit addressed in the FMLA. Disabled employees must request reasonable accommodation leave and depending on the employer, the leave may be paid or unpaid.

What if my employer refuses to give me my job back when I return from leave?

Under the FMLA, an employer could be in violation of federal law if it refuses to reinstate an employee after leave periods are concluded. The FMLA specifically addresses such situations stating that an employee must both be reinstated to the position held before leave was taken, and if that position must be a new one, it must be equivalent to the original. Not only that, but the pay, benefits and other terms and conditions of the position must be restored as well.

One exception to this rule is the FMLA’s provision regarding a “key” employee. An employer may be allowed to deny reinstatement to key employees, those who are among the highest paid 10 percent of the company, if the reinstatement would cause “substantial and grievous economic injury.” Also, an employee has no right to restoration if the return means they are not able to perform essential job duties due to a continuing medical condition or illness.

Medical Leave is Your Lawful Right as an Employee

Medical leave is an important, if not essential, aspect of every worker’s job. It’s important that workers are aware of the rights they possess concerning leave and are confident enough to request the leave they are entitled to each time it is necessary. Medical leave is a lawful right of any U.S. employee. To ensure you are getting the type of leave you deserve, always contact an experienced employment rights attorney for assistance.