Short-term and long-term disability insurance policies are intended to offer income protection (cash benefits) to people who become unable to work for medical reasons. What surprises many disability recipients is that these policies offer little to no job protection. In many cases, an employer is legally allowed to fire an employee who is receiving disability benefits, although there are some situations in which an individual would have legal grounds to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination.
Job Protection Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Federal law is known as the provides employees with twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year to deal with one's own medical issues or to take care of a sick member of one's immediate family. Not all workplaces are subject to FMLA, and even in those that are, employees must meet certain requirements to be covered by the law. FMLA applies only to companies with 50 or more employees located within 75 miles of each other, and workers must have worked:
- for a total of at least one year for the employer, and
- for at least 1,250 hours in the preceding year.
Although FMLA leave is unpaid, an employee can receive or while on FMLA leave. And, in fact, many employers require you to use your allotted FMLA time while you're on disability. For many disabled employees, FMLA is the most important form of job protection they enjoy.
Your employer may not terminate you if you are on FMLA leave as long as you don't go over 12 weeks of FMLA leave per year. When you return from FMLA leave, your employer must employ you in your former position or one that is substantially similar. If you do exceed 12 weeks of FMLA, even by a day, you run the risk of being terminated for excessive absences. Of course, if you're fired while receiving disability insurance benefits, you'll still continue to receive benefits according to the terms of your policy.
Finally, remember that FMLA is a federal law and that some states will have more generous policies regarding unpaid medical leave. Check with your state's Department of Labor or an employment law attorney to find out the rules where you live.
How the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Can Protect Your Job
Although most employees in the United States work on an "at-will" basis, which means they can be terminated for virtually any reason, the makes it illegal to fire an employee due to disability. This law protects those who meet the ADA's definition of disability, which includes many individuals on disability leave and some who have previously received benefits and returned to work.
Under the ADA, disability is defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity." Employers covered by the ADA (those with 15 or more workers) must offer to make reasonable accommodations of your disability as long as it will not cause them The burden is, however, on the employee to so that accommodations can be provided.
Accommodations can include restructuring a person's job duties or schedule, installing Braille signage, modifying desks, making the workplace more wheelchair accessible, and many others. Even granting Whether any of these accommodations constitute a hardship for the employer depends on many factors, including the size of the company and the cost of the changes. If there aren't any reasonable accommodations an employer can make that will allow a disabled employee to perform all the essential functions of the position, the worker may be legally terminated.