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Telling the boss about your medical condition

A lot rides on your decision to disclose a serious medical condition to your employer.

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How and when you tell your company that you have cancer, a debilitating chronic illness such as Multiple Sclerosis, or even the joyful news that you're pregnant can shape the future of your career and your health-care coverage.

An employee with a recently diagnosed, serious illness is like an acrobat on a tight rope, balancing the merits of disclosing the illness with the right to privacy. If he fails to tell his boss about his illness, he can get fired if his performance suffers and his employer is unaware of his condition, and how it is contributing to his poor performance.

An employer is not required to make accommodations due to a chronic condition if he or she is unaware of it. "They only provide legal protection if the employer knows," says Robin Bond, a workplace legal expert and president of Transition Strategies, an employment law firm representing individuals, based in Wayne, Pa.

So if you start missing a lot of work, regularly come in late and haven't disclosed that you have breast cancer, your company can legally fire you. If you have disclosed your illness and your company is large enough to be covered by state or federal statutes, then your job is safe -- at least for the time covered by the federal statutes. On the other hand, if an employer is too small to be regulated by the laws governing medical leave or the accommodation of a disability, making it public might not help at all.

"This is a huge gray area, and it is what keeps lawyers in business," says John Scalia, a labor and employment litigator at Greenberg Traurig, the nation's eighth largest law firm, based in the Washington, D.C. area. "There is no one-size-fits-all solution."

Federal rules that protect you
Two federal statutes that come into play with a serious illness or medical condition are the 1992 Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for employers with 50 or more workers.

Under the FMLA, employers must grant employees up to a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. The unpaid leave can be used for the adoption, fostering or birth of a child, to take care of an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition or for your own serious health condition. Your health insurance continues during your medical leave. The downside is that while the FMLA can protect your job, it doesn't require an employer to pay you for the time you take off.

Employees with chronic conditions or serious illnesses are protected from discrimination under the ADA. Provided a person can do the essential tasks of the job, the employer is required to make reasonable accommodations, such as agree to a modified work schedule or to build a ramp to make an office wheelchair accessible. An individual with epilepsy, paralysis, HIV infection, AIDS or cancer would be eligible while someone with a minor, nonchronic condition of short duration, such as a broken leg or the flu, would not be covered.

Next: "Some states offer additional help"
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