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Dear David: An Unaccommodating Situation

David Wehde.

An Unaccommodating Situation is a cross-post from Working America’s Dear David workplace advice column.

Question:

If you are under doctor direction not to return to a full schedule or work only half- or part-time, can HR say that you either come back full-time or not at all? I had surgery that my doctor said required me to work no more than part-time. The school let me work a part-time schedule though they didn’t let me teach the classes that would have been best for my students. They also lambasted me for it and think I should have come back right away. Now the district policy is full-time or nothing. No partial-time doctor’s notes will be accepted. Can they do this?

—Doctor's Note Not Enough?

Answer:

Does this bother anyone else? That you can have an employer who thinks THEY know better than a medical professional about when you are capable of working after surgery or an injury of some kind? This is why we need to be organized, folks—inside and outside the workplace. We need to be organized at the workplace so we can challenge our employers when they are wrong about things like this (which is more and more these days). And we need to be organized outside the workplace (in our industry, in our communities—coast to coast) in order to raise standards and enforce the protections we’ve got. We can’t let bad bosses think they can get away with anything. Give ‘em an inch….

Unless there is something addressing this issue in state or local education or civil service law, or a collective bargaining agreement, the answer to this question depends on whether your condition qualifies as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A disability is defined as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Until recently, temporary conditions were not considered disabilities under the ADA. Recent changes to the law allow that, in some instances, temporary conditions may be considered disabilities depending on whether they fit the definition of disability. If a condition is classified as a disability, an employer has a legal obligation to offer a “reasonable accommodation” for that disability as long as doing so does not result in “undue hardship” for the employer. A part-time or modified schedule is an example of a reasonable accommodation that an employer must offer, absent undue hardship, when necessary to accommodate an employee with disability

If a medical condition does not rise to the level of being a “disability” under the eyes of the law, then an employer does not have to offer a part-time schedule, even with a doctor’s recommendation, unless there is a local law or contractual provision requiring the employer to do so. How these legal principles apply to a given situation can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, but a general outline of the ADA and reasonable accommodations can be found here.

It’s good to know your rights under the ADA, but that’s just a minimum standard. Don’t you think our work lives shouldn’t be ruled by minimum standards alone? Me neither! Assuming that you don’t have the benefit of a union (since you probably would already be working within that system)—don’t go it alone. Start talking with others whom you think also have been affected. Chances are good that others feel the same way you do. Bring in more of your co-workers. Even if they haven’t been personally affected this way, ask them what they would do in your situation. If the majority of you disagree with the new district policy, it could be time to talk to your boss about it, together. Could be time to think about organizing a union, too…that’s one of the best ways to make sure that the way the bar gets set isn’t just left to your boss.

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