An employer cannot legally terminate an employee for being sick in most cases.
As an employee, one of the most frightening thoughts is potentially losing your job due to an illness. In the United States, most employees are working “at-will.” At-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, as long as it’s not discriminatory or illegal.
However, this does not mean that employers can just fire an employee for being sick. In the United States, employees have protections over what employers may or may not fire them for. If you believe that you have been fired illegally, you should know what laws and actions you have to combat unjust firing.
Sick Leave Policies and Protections for Employees
To understand whether or not an employer can fire you for being sick, it is important to understand the various sick leave policies and protections available to employees.
Currently, there are no federal laws that mandate paid sick leave for employees. However, there are some federal laws that protect employees from discrimination based on their medical condition or disability. Some of these laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
State and Local Laws
Several states and local governments have enacted laws mandating paid sick leave for employees. For example, as of 2021, Washington D.C. and thirteen other states have passed paid sick leave laws, including California and New York. Furthermore, some states have passed laws that require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
Can an Employer Legally Terminate an Employee for Being Sick?
The answer to whether an employer can legally terminate an employee for being sick is not straightforward. As mentioned earlier, employment in the United States is generally “at-will,” meaning that employers can terminate employees at any time and for any reason that is not discriminatory or illegal. However, this does not mean that employers can fire employees for being sick.
If an employer terminates an employee for being sick, it could be considered discriminatory under certain circumstances. For example, if an employee has a disability covered under the ADA, an employer cannot terminate the employee for being sick if the employee can still perform the essential functions of their job with reasonable accommodations. Similarly, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of their medical condition or their need for medical treatment.
If an employee qualifies for FMLA leave, they have job protection for up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition. Employers cannot retaliate against an employee for taking FMLA leave or terminate them for taking this leave. Additionally, employers must provide employees with their job back or an equivalent position after their leave period ends.
If an employee’s illness or injury is work-related, they may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. In this case, an employer cannot terminate an employee for being sick or for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
What Should You Do If You Believe Your Employer Has Violated Your Rights?
If an employee believes their employer has terminated them for being sick, discriminated against them, or violated their rights under FMLA, ADA, or any other laws, they can take the following actions:
- Speak to their employer’s HR department or supervisor and try to resolve the issue informally.
- File a complaint with a federal or state agency responsible for enforcing employment laws, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Department of Labor.
- File a lawsuit against their employer in court.
In some places like California, if you are still suited for your job after being injured or sick, your employer must still offer you your job, within reasonable accommodation. However, they may pay you less at about 85% of your old wage. If your employer does not abide by this, you should seek an attorney to learn more about your wage rights as an injured employee. Read more about it here.
In summary, an employer cannot legally terminate an employee for being sick in most cases. While employment is generally “at-will,” in the United States, there are several federal and state laws that protect employees from being fired based off their medical conditions.If you believe that your rights were violated, you may take actions to fight for them by filing a complaint with a federal or state agency, talking to your company’s HR department, or filing a lawsuit.
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