When Diabetes Is Not Protected At Work

Despite the progress that has been made to protect the rights of workers in the United States, there is still discrimination in the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to protect the rights of disabled people, but the law is far from perfect. Not all employers are covered by the ADA, and many of those who are covered struggle to understand their responsibilities under the law.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA became law in the United States in 1990, and made it unlawful for public, and some private employers to discriminate in employment against someone who is disabled. An amendment to the Act in 2009 broadened the definitions, and now generally qualifies diabetes as a disability.

The law applies employers who employ 15 more more people. The employees of small, private businesses (less than 15 employees) are not specifically covered under the ADA for employment-related purposes. While this does not give small businesses carte blanche to discriminate against people with disabilities, the legal protections for diabetics who work for these small firms are more complicated. It is beyond the scope of this post, but there are other federal, state, and local regulations that may offer protections in these instances.

Many Employers Do Not Understand the ADA

Whether a company is covered by the ADA or not, many organizations struggle to understand their responsibilities under this law. What may seem straight forward to those of us who have a qualified disability is anything but clear to many employers. The most basic employment-related premises of the law:

♦ It provides protections for qualified disabled workers. If you are able to perform the essential functions of a position, but need an accommodation that is reasonable, then you must be given equal opportunity to perform the work. The essential functions of jobs are typically identified in a job description, although not all organizations write job descriptions, and fewer write them well

♦ The ADA does not require employers to change the essential functions of a job to fit someone with a disability

♦ The law does not require an employer to make an accommodation that would cause an undue hardship on the company, or on other employees. The problem most employers face is determining what is considered reasonable under the law; there is far less guidance for employers than you would think.

Why You Should Care About Your Employer’s Challenges

I assume that most employers want to treat their employees well, and want to follow the intent of labor regulations. However, many small employers do not have the expertise, or sometimes the resources to understand their responsibilities under the ADA, and other labor laws. If you’re organization is too small to have a dedicated HR department, chances are good they don’t understand the law. Organizations with HR departments sometimes get it wrong. Even large organizations with highly skilled HR practitioners frequently utilize the expertise of outside labor attorneys who specialize in the ADA to make the right decisions. This is complicated stuff.

What You Can Do

Don’t assume your employer is a dirty, rotten, SOB if he does not seem willing to work with you and your diabetic needs. He probably doesn’t understand the law, and you may have an opportunity to help him understand. Here are a few approaches I recommend to help your employer help you:

♦ Be up front with your manager about your diabetes, and any accommodations that you need to do your job. Employers need to understand that your diabetes-related request is more than just a personal preference

♦ Be specific about the accommodations that you need to manage your diabetes at work. Managers are terrible mind-readers. If there are specific times, or a place away from your work station that you need to test blood sugars or administer medications, then be specific in your request. If you need a refrigerator to store your insulin, request it.

♦ When your employer does provide you with accommodations to manage your condition, do not abuse them. You must assume that your co-workers will notice that you have accommodations, and at least one sorehead will complain to management that you have unfair, special privileges

♦ Educate your employer and co-workers about diabetes, and how an accommodation allows you to do your job. In the end, it is about getting your job done well.

When Discrimination Occurs

So what do you do if you’ve tried to work with your manager to accommodate your diabetes-related needs, and you are not getting results? I would first suggest first talking with your organization’s HR leader to make sure s/he is aware of your request for accommodation. Any competent HR practitioner out there will understand the seriousness of your request. When direct conversations fail, there are resources available to help educate you and your employer about rights and responsibilities under the law. A good starting point is the resources available through the American Diabetes Association.

If you have questions about diabetes at work, you can leave a comment or email it to irundiabetes@gmail.com.