Can You Fire Someone for Needing Time Off for an Illness? Is There Any Recourse for the Employee?

Charlene, an employee of the library, noticed Bob in the hall and asked, “Did something happen to Pat? I’ve sent her a couple of messages, but I haven’t received any responses.“ Bob who was Pat’s supervisor stated, “I had to let her go. She had been out on sick leave for a while, but she wanted more time off. I needed to get work done. I couldn’t just keep giving her time off. Besides, she understood that we only give 12 weeks of FMLA. I think I was more than fair with her.” Charlene couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Pat had been with the library for more than 20 years, and now she was gone because she had a health concern. That just didn’t seem right. Charlene thought to herself, “This shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.” She wondered if it was even legal for Pat to have been fired. Wasn’t Pat allowed to take time off while she was ill, and then be allowed more time off if she needed it? Should the employer have tried to work with Pat and allowed more time off? Did Pat have to accept being fired? Was there anything she could do? Well, the answer is, it depends.

Two laws might apply here: FMLA and ADA.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), workers who are substantially limited in one or more major life activities due to a physical or mental impairment have rights under the ADA. One of these is the right to accommodation (a change in the workplace policies, facilities, or how work is done). Time off work can be one form of accommodation.

This article acknowledges that work-leave policies can be a challenge for many employers and discusses how effective work-leave policies are a key part of legal compliance as well as a benefit to employers. It clearly explains workers’ rights under FMLA and ADA and instances when both may apply. The article offers guidelines for employers to consider along with a list of relevant resources.

In cases such as that described above, employers who are required to abide by the rules of FMLA and ADA should review the guidelines of both and see if and how they apply to the situation at hand. If nothing else, besides keeping employees’ information confidential, the employer should engage in good-faith discussions to find a satisfactory solution for both parties. Doing so could keep the employer from being sued or facing fines related to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges. Both a lawsuit and filing EEOC charges are recourses that employees have at their disposal in such situations.