I have stress about Covid-19 at my office. Can I file for short-term disability?
The bottom line
Employees may be able to file for short-term disability if a medical professional diagnoses them with an anxiety disorder, depression or other mental illness due to that stress. But there are other options to consider under the Americans With Disabilities Act, depending on the person’s condition and workplace environment.
This worker’s situation is common these days.
“We get this question every week multiple times a week,” says Michelle Barrett Falconer, a partner at employment law firm Littler Mendelson.
First, workers should consult their employee handbook or human-resources portal to find out whether their company provides for short-term disability benefits. Five states—California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island—also have such programs. To apply, employees need a medical provider to identify they are temporarily disabled from performing their particular job.
“Stress itself is not going to be a reason. It has to manifest in some physical or mental condition,” says Alex Berke of Berke-Weiss Law, noting that some short-term disability plans have exclusions for mental health.
Valdi Licul, partner at Wigdor, says many insurance companies have put out FAQs in recent months. He says employees shouldn’t be afraid to ask to see the policy, which usually has a “summary plan description” explaining the worker’s rights in layman’s terms.
Carey & Associates’s Mark Carey recommends applying for short-term disability and leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act—which has a lower threshold for approval—at the same time. Short-term disability leave is six months and pays out a portion, usually around 60%, of an employee’s salary. FMLA is 12 weeks and typically unpaid, but offers job protection during the time of leave, which short-term disability doesn’t.
Both are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But lawyers also recommend using the ADA to seek other reasonable accommodations, such as working remotely, having a single closed room to the employee’s self, or a flexible or staggered schedule. Such accommodations are worked out during what’s called the “interactive process” between worker and employer.
If an employee’s stress stems from their being part of the immunocompromised or at-risk population, the ADA can also help.
Ms. Falconer, who works on the employer’s or defense side of litigation, says while most cases coming in stem from the employee having a generalized stress about Covid-19, some are more directly linked to the workplace itself. Employees who are stressed because of their work and the fear of catching the virus may be able to file a worker’s compensation claim.
“For fictional worker Larry, let’s say part of his job is going to public events and he’s supposed to go speak at a banquet,” she says. “If his boss says you’ve got to go speak and he says I’m so fearful and the boss is putting pressure on him, he may say he has stress as a result of Covid and the pressure the boss is putting on him, which could be psychiatric injury.”
In this episode of the Employee Survival Guide we discuss how to apply for disability benefits through your employer if you fear for your personal safety at the workplace due to Covid-19. Whether you have an anxiety or panic disorder or you are trying to protect your vulnerability due to Covid-19, Employment Attorney Mark Carey will give you a short guide about how to apply for your employer’s Short Term Disability benefits and Long Term Disability benefits under a federal statute called ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act). Mark will also discuss the very important overlap with the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and state antidiscrimination laws. He will show you how protected you actually are against your employer unfairly terminating you for taking a much needed disability leave of absence due to Covid-19.
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Your Job and the Coronavirus 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself
The issue is not if the Coronavirus will impact your employment but when it will. If you contract the Coronavirus or you are quarantined due to a family member having the illness, you need to know the following important pieces of information to protect yourself.
1. Having the Coronavirus is a Disability and You Are Entitled to Protections
If you are diagnosed with the Coronavirus, you will have a physical disability pursuant to state and federal law. Generally, any impairment of your major life functions is considered a disability and it appears that the Coronavirus is so severe it can become fatal in a short period of time. An employer who discriminates against an employee who contracts the Coronavirus may be liable under disability laws. Also, you should request a reasonable accommodation for a disability leave of absence to quarantine yourself and seek medical assistance. Your employer has an obligation to discuss your accommodation, albeit after they order you not to come to the office until you recover.
State and federal disability laws also protect employees who are “regarded as” having the Coronavirus but have not been diagnosed yet or do not even have the virus. The medical community has only indicated the early signs of the Coronavirus mimic flu symptoms and you will not know which illness you have until you have been tested. The idea here is that disability laws seek to address discriminatory biases held by employers who speculate a person has a disability but are unsure about the truth of the employee’s medical situation.
Finally, the disability laws also protect employees “associated with” individual family members who have the Coronavirus. If you are fired out of fear that your family member infected you, you are protected against discrimination and unlawful termination, even though you never contracted the illness.
2. You May Have Rights Pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act
If you contract the Coronavirus, and you have worked a significant number of hours in the past year, you may be entitled to take time off, paid in some states like New York and soon Connecticut. You will be entitled to 12 weeks or more and your job will be protected. However, you have to come back to work before the expiration of the FMLA leave or your employer will terminate you. This leave of absence overlaps with the disability accommodation request above. A good an employment lawyer will know how to navigate this for you.
3. You May Be Entitled to Short Term and Long Term Disability Benefits
You may also be entitled to paid time off under your employer’s short term and long term disability benefits plan. Again, this disability leave of absence overlaps with the disability and FMLA leaves of absence. In order to qualify for benefits, you need to apply for them through your Human Resources Department and demonstrate, via supporting medical documentation, you are totally disabled. Given the severity of the Coronavirus, you will certainly qualify as having a total disability. The grey area will be in those cases where the symptoms of the virus are not as severe and you recover within a matter of weeks. If you recover, and hopefully you do, the STD and LTD benefits will only be paid for the period of your disability. You would need to return to work after your recovery, but an employment lawyer will guide you through this process.
4. You May Be Entitled to Workers Compensation
If and only if you contract the Coronavirus while at work, can you file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. This type of claim takes longer to collect from the insurer, but more importantly, it may bar you from recovery under other state laws but not federal laws. Federal laws will always preempt state law claims.
5. You May Be Entitled To Severance If You Are Terminated
If you are terminated for contracting the Coronavirus, regarded as having the virus or associated with a family member who has it, you should consider hiring an employment attorney to attempt to negotiate a severance package with your employer. Your employer may already have a severance plan which pays out benefits, i.e. weeks of salary for years of service, and you will need to sign a waiver and release of claims, aka settlement agreement. An employer will want to avoid any connection to accusations that it fired an employee for having the Coronavirus; it just does not seem fair and the right thing to do.
Your Job and the Coronavirus 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself. If you would like more information about this topic and need to speak to an employment attorney, please contact email@example.com or call Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150.
10 Things You Should Know About Employment in Connecticut
1. Employers Can Give Bad References, Just Not False Ones
Employers no longer give references for former employees, so stop worrying. Employers fear being sued for defamation or claims for negligent hire. The majority if not all employers will provide prospective employers and their recruiters with your dates of employment, position, and possibly salary. The employer will not provide the reason(s) for termination. However, if you hear your former employer said they would not recommend for rehire, that is code language that you are a poor employee. The only exception I can think of is if you and your employer are FINRA registered members, i.e. brokerages and licensed employees in the financial industry. FINRA regulated employers are required to provide the reason for termination in the employee’s U-5 record.
Under the Connecticut Family Leave Act, employees are entitled to take up to 16 weeks of unpaid leave. Connecticut law provides for an additional 4 weeks on top of the federal FMLA (12). Employees should ask there employers if they have short term disability benefits to coincide with the 16 weeks of leave. A typical STD plan provides for six months of paid leave at 60% of the employees base pay. Nothing is guaranteed, and the employer will not volunteer the information. Employees in need of a leave of absence must self-advocate for their rights and document all their requests in writing. Remember, your job is protected during the FMLA, but if you fail to return before your leave ends, you will lose your job.
3. Connecticut Employees Have a Right to Personnel Files
Connecticut employees are entitled to a complete and accurate copy of their personnel files, including a copy of their supervisor’s version of their file. All the employee has to do is make a written request via email to the HR department and the employer must provide a copy of the file within 30 days. If the employer refuses, please contact the CT Department of Labor and register a complaint.
4. An Unfair Employment Termination is Not Necessarily Illegal
Listen, employers can be really mean and behave in very unfriendly ways. However, just because the employer is a pain in the butt and trying to make your life miserable, this does not mean the employer’s actions are illegal. Employers do not care about employees, so get over it. Your job cannot be your identity. You are an “at will” employee and you should never assume your job is secure, even if you worked for the company for 10 years. In order to determine if your employer’s action to terminate you were illegal, you would need to speak to our employment attorneys. A quick 15 minute call to our office will flesh out the legal issues and permit us to determine if you were fired unlawfully.
5. Independent Contractors Have Rights Too
You may not know it, but if you are an independent contractor you are still protected against unlawful employment actions such as discrimination. You should also investigate if your employer is correctly classifying you as an independent contractor (IRS Form 1099) or regular employee (IRS Form W-2). We see a lot of employees misclassified as independent contractors when they should be regular workers. Employees fear challenging the employer on this classification because they believe they will lose their contract. If you are in doubt, call the CT Department of Labor or call our office to speak with an employment attorney. Also search the internet in Connecticut for the “ABC Test for Independent Contractors.” You can also search the IRS.gov website for the same information.
6. The Legal Effect of Quitting Your Job
Don’t ever quit your job! You cannot collect unemployment benefits. Also, it is too difficult to prove your voluntary job termination was a “constructive discharge”. The facts must show a series of recent events that violate state and federal law and that any reasonable person would also quit. If you are in a tight bind where your employer is giving you the writing on the wall treatment to get out, speak to an employment attorney in our office first. We will deter you from quitting and will advise you to leave your job through the signing of a separation agreement which includes a severance payment for your service with the company as a result of unlawful treatment.
7. Employees with Criminal Records Are Protected
Under Connecticut law, employers cannot refuse to hire or terminate an employee because of a criminal record. Obviously, each case is different, so you will need to contact an employment attorney in our office to figure out if you are protected.
8. You May Have a Legal Right to Severance Pay
Employees employed in Connecticut may have a legal right to severance pay. If the employer maintains a severance plan governed by ERISA (federal regulation), employees working in Connecticut are considered participants and entitled to severance pay pursuant to the plan document. The one condition to receive severance pay set forth in every ERISA severance plan is that the employee must signed a general release of claims. How do you know you company has a severance plan? You can check your internal human resource portal or employee handbook. All ERISA severance plans have to be filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. Years ago I found this free website where you can research your employer. Insert the employer’s name in the site and go through the various plans listed. You are looking for a plan labeled with the word “severance” in it. The plan severance plan code is “4i”. If you find it listed, then you know a severance plan exists. Once you have identified your employer’s severance plan, make a written request to the Human Resources Department for a copy of the severance plan. The HR Department has a legal obligation to provide a copy of the severance plan within 30 days of your written request. You will find in the plan the amount of severance pay based on your years of service with the employer. Don’t leave money on the table, but chances are the employer will remind you about your benefits, as they have a fiduciary obligation to you as a plan participant. If you need a severance attorney, call our office and speak with one of our employment attorneys.
9. How to Predict When You Are Getting Fired
Hmmm, try your gut instinct. Are you getting the awful feeling that your boss and coworkers have turned on you? You may have been a satisfactory performer last year, but this year your rating sunk or needs improvement. Or, you made a complaint to your supervisor or HR about your wages or unlawful discriminatory treatment, and suddenly your once friendly work place is not so friendly. Maybe you just announced you are four months pregnant and you are getting the cold shoulder. Worse, your supervisor makes pregnancy related comments and jokes. Finally, if your coworkers and/or supervisors are openly hostile with you and use derogatory language directed at your gender, sexual orientation, race or age, then you know the crap just hit the fan and you need to speak to one of our employment attorneys.
10. Don’t Sign Anything When You Get Fired
Isn’t this obvious? You should never sign anything when you leave your job. You should also not participate in any exit interview with the HR Department. No state or federal law mandates your participation in the exit interview. What you need to do is speak with an employment attorney in our office who will figure out if the termination was lawful and whether the employer acted unlawfully prior to the termination date, i.e. demotions, discrimination, etc.
If anything mentioned above sounds like your current situation, or if you find yourself there in the future, Carey & Associates, P.C. can help! Our firm specializes in employment, wrongful termination, discrimination, whistleblowing, and more.