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Employers Beware When Employees Inform You of an Illness

Supervisors must be very careful when employees inform them of an illness or diagnosis of an illness. It is easy to ask the usual questions such as, "How do you think this will affect your work?" However, if you don't make every effort to accommodate the employee's illness, you may find your company being sued for "failure to accommodate" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

These charges are different than OSHA citations, where companies can be cited with failing to provide accommodation facilities for disabled individuals. Nevertheless, in Texas, an attorney can still provide a good defense if they can prove that the employer did not willingly fail to provide accommodations for a disabled employee and made some kind of effort to work with the employee.

A recent case in Illinois demonstrates what can happen if a supervisor is not careful of their wording when having a discussion with an employee about their illness. A clerk informed her supervisor that she had been diagnosed with cancer and inquired if there were any "easier jobs" that she might be able to perform. She also informed her supervisor that she would need to take some medical leave to attend medical appointments for treatment.

The supervisor was not informed that the clerk actually was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer or given the details about the illness and treatment. Her response to the employee was that there were no easier jobs in her department, and she also remarked that they would need a production clerk during their busy season. This response apparently led the clerk to believe that her job was in jeopardy, so she resigned the same day.

Two years later, she brought charges against the company for failure-to-accommodate and constructive discharge. She claimed the company did not attempt to accommodate her job by telling her about other jobs available, and that the supervisor led her to believe she would be fired. The company requested a summary judgment, which was denied.

According to the courts, accommodation process should begin as soon as an employee notifies a supervisor about an illness.

Source: bloomberglaw.com, "Failure to Inform Worker With Cancer About Jobs May Breach ADA Duty, Judge Decides" Jay-Anne B. Casuga, Sep. 17, 2013

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