Medical Exceptions to At-Will Employment
at-will employment

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

Actual Comments of Why Employees Leave

“I was terminated because I went to the ER thinking I was having a heart attack. Once it was determined I had not had a heart attack, I let my supervisor know. It was one-half hour before my shift. I was let go because they said I had not given them enough notice that I would not be in for my shift.”

The Solution:

In part to ensure anonymity, our exit interview quotes do not come with full context. The quote from the terminated employee above, without this context, certainly rings of, no pun intended, heartlessness.

The reality is that most U.S. states have “at-will” employment. This means, to quote an article by AOL Jobs writer Donna Ballman, “You can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. You can be fired because your boss was in a bad mood that day.” (As long as there is no discrimination involved.)

So yes, not receiving acceptable notice about an absence certainly qualifies as good enough of a reason to legally fire someone—except when it isn’t. That’s because some employees, due to special medical circumstances, are not entirely “at-will” employees.

And that’s why if immediate supervisors in your company have and regularly use the power to fire employees for coming in late or calling in absent—including for medical reasons, it’s vital that they know exceptions to the “bad mood” standard for termination that might be included in situations involving:

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Domestic violence leave

Under the FLSA, employers cannot legally:

  • dock the pay of certain salaried employees who come in late
  • deny them a full day of wages for the day they were fired

Employees covered by The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because of chronic and/or disabling medical conditions have the right to “reasonable accommodation” for medical treatments that keep them healthy enough to continue their employment and their careers in the workforce.

If the exit interview quote cited above was from an employee covered under the ADA because of an at-times disabling heart or vascular condition, not accepting a half-hour of notice given from a hospital emergency room might be outside the definition of “reasonable accommodation,” and the employer in question might be facing a legitimate legal complaint.

Additionally, employees might be covered under the FMLA, which entitles them to up to 12 weeks “of continuous or intermittent leave” to attend to their own medical needs or those of an immediate family member.

If you have fire-happy supervisors and/or a built-in high turnover rate for workers in certain departments, then those supervisors need to know which employees under their direct supervision are exempt from the “at-will” standard of termination when it comes to medical-related tardiness, lack of notice and absenteeism.

One tactic to reduce risk even further is to notify such mid-level managers, without going into any medical disclosures, that certain employees who report to them directly should only be fired for medical-related late arrivals or no-shows after review of incidents by HR and/or the legal department.

This proactive approach might protect workers and middle managers alike while steering your company away from avoidable litigation.

(This blog post is brought to you by HSD Metrics, an exit interview company that helps companies reduce employee turnover by providing automated reference checking, exit interviews, and by measuring employee retention. The comments from exiting employees that are featured in this blog are collected from actual exit interviews conducted using ExitRight®, HSD Metrics’ exit interviewing service. If you are interested in learning more, contact us today. Because we place the privacy of our clients at the top of our priority list; the names of all involved parties are kept completely confidential.)