February 2024 Newsletter

WHEN SHOULD WORKERS TELL EMPLOYERS WHY THEY ARE ABSENT

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s failure to disclose his recent hospitalization has triggered an uproar in Washington, D.C. and in workplaces beyond the capital city. Experts have said employees should be prepared to disclose basic information about their own hospitalizations, for their own protection.

You can’t just go AWOL.  For most private employers, if an employee doesn’t show up to work for three days without contacting the organization, that’s considered quitting without notice.

In Austin’s case, the general underwent minimally invasive prostate cancer surgery on December 22nd and was released from the hospital. He then was readmitted January 1st due to complications and later transferred to the intensive care unit. He was released January 15th.

Neither President Joe Biden nor Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who took over some of Austin’s responsibilities January 2nd while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico, were informed of Austin’s hospitalization until January 4th.

If the same thing had happened in the private sector, most employers would have adequate grounds for termination.  Employees who work in the private sector typically should disclose their hospitalizations or major medical issues because that notice triggers most of the employment law protections that exist in private employment.  Protections can come from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or from state or local laws involving paid sick time.

While a person would not have to specify that they would be absent from work because they were undergoing prostate cancer treatment, they would have to say that they would be absent for health reasons.

Under the FMLA, employees can receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave during a 12-month period, for qualifying family or medical reasons.  An employee must provide notice that they intend to use FMLA leave, and employers may request information from a health care provider before approving the request.

Under the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability if it does not cause an undue hardship on the business.

Some states also have their own family and medical leave laws that may apply.

If an employee acknowledges that a medical situation might hinder their ability to do their job, in a lot of situations, the underlying condition is a disability, which would qualify for ADA accommodations.

The issue often arises in cases where employees tell their employer that they are sick and then seemingly disappear, and it turns out they are in inpatient psychiatric care or rehabilitation for drug or alcohol use. Yet both instances may be covered by the ADA and employees may be within their right to request an accommodation.

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