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Monday, December 22, 2014

From Diagnosis to Disability: When Should You Tell Your Employer About Your Chronic Condition?

This is the first in the series of posts on what to do from the diagnosis of a degenerative condition such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease until the time you actually submit your application for disability benefits.  

In this post, I discuss what you should consider in deciding when to tell your employer about your condition. The most important criterion for this decision is how disclosure is going to affect your job and career.  Employers are supposed to keep this information confidential if direct them to do so, but you have to make the assumption that at some point it will leak out to your co-workers.  

  • If things are going well and you are an executive or high-level partner, you probably don’t have a lot to worry about.  You will likely be given necessary job accommodations and leaves of absence (both of which will be discussed in later posts).  One problem, though, is you can lose control over how your condition is affecting your career:
    • Your employer may want you to apply for disability sooner than you would like.  It could be that the employer notices that your condition has affected your performance more than you realize, or it could be that your supervisor is uncomfortable being around someone with a chronic illness..  Or, it could be that your employer genuinely thinks it would be better for you not to work so you can deal with your condition.  Whether it comes from a good place or not, you could be pressed to move sooner than you wanted.
    • If it becomes known in the office, others may begin to treat you differently because of your condition.  You might not be offered a promotion or additional training because of the assumptions others may make about the anticipated course of your condition.  Or, even if people have the best of intentions, they may start treating you like a sick person rather than a colleague, and you might not be ready for that yet.
  • If things are bad on the job, it is a more difficult decision.  You may think that your employer will just use the existence of the condition as another excuse to make your life more difficult.  You can, however, get greater legal protection in your job if you disclose your condition, under certain circumstances:
    • If your condition is starting to affect your ability to do your job, you may be able to get accommodations under the Americans with Disability Act that will make it easier for you to do your job, or get medical leave, including intermittent medical leave.  You also have potential protections under the Connecticut Fair Employment practices Act.  I’ll discuss accommodations and medical leaves in future posts.  But, don’t wait until you are terminated or placed on a performance improvement plan to ask for these.  
    • Asking for accommodation or medical leave, even if the employer doesn't grant them, gives you protected status under these statutes.  Retaliation for requesting benefits under these statutes is illegal.  You will at least force the employer to think twice about terminating you or disciplining you if you have requested relief under either of these statutes.

Telling your employer is one of the key tactical decisions in the process of moving from diagnosis to application.  Discuss it with a trusted adviser, and make the decision deliberately. Consulting with an ERISA long-term disability lawyer who is familiar with Connecticut and federal employment laws can be a big help in navigating the transition from work to disability, and in pursuing any appeals of a long-term disability denial, and is crucial if you want to sue for a denial of long-term disability benefits.   

Other Posts in the Diagnosis to LTD Application Series

Diagnosis to LTD Application: Six Things to Consider

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