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What Is Disability Leave?
Disability leave can refer to a number of ways to help employees who need time to recuperate from illness or injury. Most specifically, it refers to employers’ legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects disabled individuals from discrimination on the basis of their disability.
Under the ADA, companies must offer what is called “reasonable accommodation” to support people with disabilities to work. Accommodations depend on the restrictions of the disability and how reasonable they are for the business to provide; they could include building ramps into the building for wheelchair access or providing a standing desk for someone with a back injury.
Reasonable accommodation includes time off for recuperation, treatment, or disability leave. The ADA protects people with disabilities so they can take occasional time off to accommodate their needs without worrying about putting their job at risk. The length and frequency of disability leave depends on the medical condition, as well as what’s reasonable for the business to provide. Leave (or any other accommodation) should be provided up until the point becomes an undue hardship on the business.
Providing your employees with disability leave as needed will keep you in compliance with the ADA. It also ensures your workforce has the support they need to perform at top shape.
Who Is Covered By Disability Leave?
Only individuals with disabilities qualify for disability leave. The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” Major life activities include (but are not limited to) walking, speaking, lifting, seeing, hearing, learning, or taking care of oneself, including the operation of major bodily functions. Disabilities can be temporary or permanent, and can stem from sickness or injury.
If you’re skeptical about an employee really having a disability and needing accommodation, you need not rely solely on the employee’s word. Doctor’s notes can be requested to validate a disability and the kind of accommodation needed. However, beware of skepticism, since most disabilities are invisible. Making it difficult for your employees to receive accommodations could bring penalties from the ADA. Besides, most accommodations cost close to nothing and will help your employees feel supported.
The terms that qualify an individual with disabilities for disability leave are the same terms that qualify an individual with disabilities for any other kind of reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodations are alterations to an employee’s work environment or duties to help them fulfill their job expectations. An accommodation is only “reasonable” when it places no undue hardship on the business.
Putting this all together, an employee qualifies for disability leave when their disability requires a short period of time away from work that won’t result in an undue hardship on the business. In other words, if an employee with a disability needs some time off because of their disability, the employer should approve the time off as short-term disability leave, as long as the leave wouldn’t place a significant burden or expense on the organization.
An accommodation is only “reasonable” when it places no undue hardship on the business. If a company determines that the accommodations requested by a person with a disability are unreasonable or will put undue hardship on the organization, the accommodation may be declined or adjusted. This is one way the ADA differs from the FMLA. If an employee requests leave under FMLA, it must be permitted, regardless of how it would affect the business.
Types of Disability Leave
There are many ways companies provide time off to deal with health needs. They usually apply to employees who are not covered by the ADA, too. Let’s look at a few of them and how they relate to or interact with ADA requirements.
- Sick leave. Most companies offer a certain number of paid leave for when an employee is sick or injured. Businesses are not required to offer paid sick leave; however, they are required to offer leave under state and federal laws such as the ADA or FMLA.
- FMLA. The Family Medical Leave Act allows up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for employees with a “serious health condition.”
- Workers’ compensation. Sometimes workers’ compensation benefits include some time off for employees to recuperate. Lost wages may be paid to the employee by the workers’ comp agency.
- Disability insurance. Employers can offer disability insurance plans to their employees to pay wages during disability leave. Companies in California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island are required to have disability insurance.
- Disabled veteran leave. Veterans with a service-connected disability qualify for leave under the ADA as well as disabled veteran leave. They can use both, but the leaves will often overlap with each other.
- Donated leave. Some employers sponsor leave donation programs, where employees can donate hours of leave to be used by other employees experiencing serious medical emergencies who have exhausted all of their paid leave already. This, as well as all other types of leave, can be counted towards lawfully-mandated leaves such as the ADA or FMLA.
What Is the Disability Leave Process?
The process for implementing disability leave as defined by the ADA is the same process as for any other reasonable accommodation. Here are the steps to follow.
The Employee Asks for Disability Leave
Proactive HR professionals may approach certain employees about disability leave if they feel it is needed (or if the company’s leave policies aren’t already communicated well enough). Typically, though, the employee is aware of their need for time off and approaches HR.
The Employer and Employee Discuss the Barriers to Performance
Reasonable accommodations are meant to help individuals with disabilities perform the essential functions of their job. The employer and employee should discuss how this leave of absence will help the employee accomplish their job. Doctor’s notes help in this area.
The Employer Decides If the Accommodation Is Reasonable and Effective
If the leave will cause a significant burden or expense on the business, the request can be denied without breaking any laws under the ADA. The employer and employee should decide on how much leave is necessary and at what point it would cause undue hardship on the business.
The Leave Is Implemented and Documented
Once the disability leave is approved, document it clearly in the employee’s file in case additional leave is requested in the future.
Examples of Disability Leave
Here are some fictional examples of when employees qualify for disability leave.
Jose has clinical depression and wants to attend special therapy workshops that happen twice a year. With a psychiatrist’s note, he meets with HR about taking some additional time off for the workshops, which take up a whole day. His HR rep determines that the therapy is necessary for Jose’s disability and that two additional days off every year won’t place undue hardship on the business. Though in this instance Jose has already used up all of his company-offered leave, HR allows him to take additional unpaid time off as a reasonable accommodation.
Dianne was in a recent car accident and needs to use crutches for the next three months. Since her job requires her to move freely and lift heavy objects, she requests to go on disability leave until she can move without crutches. Her HR rep determines that three months away from work would put the business behind in orders significantly, which would have large financial consequences. Rather than accommodating Dianne’s disability with leave, her employer offers Dianne a temporary desk job which opens up other workers’ availability to help with her old job.
Taylor has a chronic illness that occasionally flares up, causing debilitating pain for a short period of time. One morning, Taylor calls the company’s HR department and says they won’t be able to come to work for the next few days. Taylor doesn’t have any more company-provided time off, but is approved to take the time off they need for disability leave. After four days, Taylor feels better and comes back to work.
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Brandon is currently a People & Capabilities Advisor at Thiess where he helps implement HR strategies in Salt Lake City and Colorado. He recently graduated with his MHR and MBA at Utah State University, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with minors in HR, business management, and technical sales management. He has filled professional roles as an HR business partner, an HR generalist, and a senior recruiter; and has exceptional experience in people analytics, compensation, and talent development. Brandon is a strong advocate for HR strategy and helping business leaders understand the true power of maximizing employee potential.
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