Can an Employer Fire You for Being Sick?

Sick employee calling out of work on their phone

You may fear losing your job when you experience an illness, especially when your sick days run out. The good news is that there are legal protections in place for employees that specifically address termination due to illness. However, this does not automatically mean your job is secure if you missed days due to illness. 

Every employee should understand their rights in the workplace and what the law has to say about termination over illness. If you believe you were illegally fired because you were sick and missed work, it is a good idea to consult an employment lawyer as soon as possible to learn how to fight back.  

Legal Protections Against Termination for Illness

A gavel resting next to a law book on FMLA

The two most important pieces of legislation that protect employees’ rights for reasons related to health and illness are the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These two acts contain the main federal laws related to employee illness and an employer’s obligation to make accommodations. 

The FMLA primarily protects an employee when they are caring for themself or an immediate family member who is ill. The FMLA also protects employees when they give birth to a child.  

The ADA offers numerous safeguards for disabled employees. It covers illnesses related to various physical, mental, chronic, and terminal health conditions. 

The FMLA and ADA are not the only laws protecting employee rights. Some states take federal legislation as a starting point and put additional protections in place. Many workplaces have additional policies that might offer further protections under an employee’s employment agreement. 

If you are fired for missing work due to an illness, the FMLA and ADA policies are only a starting point for taking action against your former employer. An employment lawyer can also rely on local laws, employee handbooks, and certain types of employment contracts or work agreements to build a case.

Scenarios Where Being Fired for Being Sick Could be Legal

Employee carrying belongings after being fired for being sick

Employees should understand that there are limits to the legal protections afforded by federal and state laws. It is possible for an employer to legally fire you for being sick too often, but only in certain situations. If you have a health condition covered by ADA or FMLA but some other form of illness causes you to be absent from work, your employer might be able to fire you. 

The ADA protects employees with disabilities. It dictates that your employer cannot legally fire you for reasons related to your disability. 

If you consistently miss work due to an illness that is not related to your disability, your employer may be able to legally fire you. It might also be legal for an employer to fire you if they can make the case that your illness or absence renders you unable to meet the job requirements. 

Termination due to illness can be a complex issue, particularly when other health conditions or disabilities are involved. 

Generally speaking, if you miss an excessive amount of work due to an illness that is not protected under a law or workplace policy, your employer usually has the right to fire you for being sick, especially when your absence negatively impacts the company or leaves your coworkers having to do your job for you. 

Scenarios Where Being Fired for Being Sick Is Illegal

Client asking lawyer if an employer can fire you for being sick

Are you wondering, “Can you be fired for being sick too often?” If so, there is good news. Many types of illness are protected under state and federal laws. For example, the ADA is designed to safeguard the rights of Americans with disabilities. If you have not been diagnosed with a disability, you might think this set of federal laws does not apply to you. 

However, the ADA covers many types of illness. Many chronic health conditions are legally designated as a “disability” under the ADA, which provides protection for employees who are living with serious illnesses or undergoing treatment for them. 

Examples of health conditions covered under the ADA include: 

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • HIV
  • Tuberculosis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Muscular dystrophy

The ADA covers mental, emotional, and physical health conditions. Regarding physical illness, it covers both contagious and non-contagious conditions. While a contagious illness like HIV is covered by ADA, the flu and common cold are not.  

If you have consistently missed work due to illness or medical treatment for health conditions covered by the ADA, it is usually illegal for an employer to terminate you. In many cases, your employer is required to offer reasonable accommodations. 

Potential Consequences for Unlawful Termination

Evaluating whether or not an employee who is terminated for illness has a legal case against their former employer can be complicated. If the employee does not have a legally protected health condition or a legally binding employment contract, the employer likely has the right to terminate them for missing too much work due to illness. 

When an employee’s illness does have legal protection, an employer needs to prove that the employee cannot do the job or is a danger to workplace safety in order to terminate their employment. 

Sometimes, an employer might try to fire an employee without taking the time to build a legally binding argument. Other times, they might claim to have legally valid reasons for firing the employee but do not have the evidence they would need to justify the termination in court. 

You might be able to take legal action over your wrongful termination. If you do so and your former employer is found guilty of illegally firing you, you face a few potential outcomes. The most common is to be offered your job back, usually with compensation for the wages you lost during the period you were terminated. 

If your employer violated anti-discrimination laws, you might also have grounds for filing a personal injury lawsuit to recover compensation. Finally, employers who violate federal laws like the FMLA or ADA may face additional consequences, such as fines, court costs, and harm to the company’s reputation.

Steps to Take if You Are Fired for Being Sick

Supervisor watching an employee leave after being fired for being sick

If you are fired for being sick, it is always a good idea to consult an employment lawyer as soon as possible. Workplace termination over illness rarely happens due to a one-time event. The best way to help your case is to maintain documentation about your illness, including: 

  • Seeing a doctor when you miss work;
  • Maintaining copies of medical records;
  • Keeping copies of correspondence with your employer.

Being fired due to an illness can make emotions run high. Although you might naturally feel angry or upset, keeping your interactions professional is best. If possible, request a hard copy or electronic documentation of your employee records and ask your employer to provide you with a written reason for the termination. 

When you head into your consultation with an employment lawyer, you should provide them with as much evidence in your favor as you can. If you have a health condition covered by FMLA or ADA, you should bring along documentation as proof. 

You should also provide copies of your work agreement and employee handbook. A company’s handbook outlines its policies for handling employee illness, disciplinary action for missing too much work, and the termination process. Even if your employer did not break federal laws by firing you, you might be able to prove they violated their policies or your work agreement. 

Once you have done your part to keep records and collect documentation, the rest of the work falls to your employment lawyer. If a lawyer thinks they can successfully make a case for unlawful termination, they will advise you on the process for moving forward and the potential benefits that taking legal action could bring. 

When to Talk to an Attorney About Being Fired

Sometimes, it is easy to see that illegal termination has taken place. In other situations, it is much harder. Often, building a successful case comes down to having many years of experience and a thorough knowledge of employment law and employee rights.  

Have you been in a situation where you were left wondering, “Can an employer fire you for being sick?” If so, know you have nothing to lose by calling an attorney. You simply cannot know what you stand to gain until you have an experienced lawyer take a look at your case.  

Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A. is an employee rights law firm that fights for employees across Florida. If you have been fired for illness in Florida, call our firm today and learn how our skilled Florida FMLA attorneys can help you fight against illegal termination.

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