“I thought my doctor was on my side, how could he get me fired”?
Frequently doctors, after treating you for a medical condition, will place certain restrictions on you which may be incompatible with the essential functions of your job. There is no law that says you can’t be fired while under a doctor’s care or that what the doctor says in a medical restriction must be followed by your employer. However, many doctors do not realize that their word doesn’t always control your employer or that an employer can fire you if you can’t do the essential functions of your job.
While it is true that your employer has a duty to try to work with you to get you back to work (if you have an impairment that will last more than 6 months and amounts to a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act “ADA”), you still must be able to perform the essential functions of your job with a reasonable accommodation from your employer. And, your employer does have a duty to work with you and try to find a reasonable accommodation. But the catch is that a reasonable accommodation does not have to be for the employer to change one of the essential functions of the job or create a new job for you. It only has to be some accommodation that will get you back to work and allow you to perform all of the essential functions of the job. For example, if your job could be performed by you, even though you are in a wheel chair, but you need a ramp to allow you to get up some steps, then your employer would probably have to do that unless it required major modifications. But, your employer wouldn’t have to assign an essential function of your job to someone else or provide you with another employee to do part of your job. Your employer could do that but would not have to do so. Sometimes employers do provide light duty for employees with temporary conditions and, if they did that for others in your situation, then they would need to do it for you.
The way in which doctors unintentionally get employees fired is by assigning restrictions to an employee without knowing how that will affect essential functions of a job. For example, if your doctor assigns a lifting restriction of 25 pounds and your job requires frequent lifting of over 25 pounds, then the doctor may have just gotten you fired. True, an employer needs to work with you to see if this restriction could be accommodated. One way, might be additional time off work to allow you to heal to where you could lift over 25 pounds. However, if the restriction is permanent, and there is no other available job that doesn’t require lifting more than 25 pounds, then the employer is allowed to fire you. And, if that is the situation then nothing can be done. However, if the doctor just arbitrarily assigned that 25 pound lifting restriction to you and you actually could safely lift 25 or more pounds, then your doctor has just gotten you fired for no good reason. This is why you must discuss these restrictions with your doctor carefully and make sure you know what your company’s published essential functions for your job are. Get this information and show it to your doctor. If your doctor is going to insist on a restriction which prevents you from doing some essential function of your job, then ask your doctor if you could go for functional capacity testing to see if you could convince him that you could do it. Also, talk with your employer before the doctor officially assigns the restriction, so that you see how the restriction will affect your job.
It is true that many times employers want to get rid of sick or injured employees because they are “damaged goods” and don’t want the inconvenience of accommodating their physical limitations or they think you will get hurt again and cost them more time and money. However, sometimes an employer is faced with a doctor’s restrictions that makes it impossible to accommodate and are reluctant to ask an employee to change it for fear of liability. And, many employees don’t know that they can discuss the medical restriction with their doctor.
DON’T just meekly accept the limitation your doctor is about to put on you. Challenge the doctor and let him know what his limitation may do to your job. I have seen people just accept these limitations from the doctor and then get fired. Sure, there may be a lawsuit against your employer for failure to accommodate a disability but this is expensive, time consuming and may not succeed. Take some responsibility for your own life and let the doctor know what his decision may do to you. If you truly need the restriction for your health, then so be it, but many patients have been fired that probably could still be working if they had just worked with the doctor and their employer more closely to discover an accommodation to their impairment.