Can employers terminate an employee out on disability leave?

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Posted by Legal Team On January 21, 2022

Like most people across the United States, workers in California are considered “at-will employees.” In general, this means employers can terminate employees at any time for any reason. The only caveat is that the termination follows a legal path for legal reasons. Numerous laws and regulations protect workers from unfair treatment and wrongful termination. Unfortunately, even with these protections in place, it is not uncommon for employers to terminate workers on improper grounds.

Employees who are on an approved leave due to a disability should not have to worry about termination. Workers take disability leave for numerous reasons including those centering on diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, hearing loss, vision loss, paralysis or amputation. Depending on numerous factors relating to both the worker and the company, the leave might fall under federal programs such as Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disability Act (ADA) or state programs specific to California. If the employer and employee fit the requirements and the leave follows the proper documentation, the worker should feel confident in their eventual safe return to work.

Is this always the case?

It is difficult to ascribe any absolutes in this area as every situation is unique. The employer cannot terminate an employee who is on approved disability leave for an illegal reason. However, this does not mean the employee cannot be terminated. If the organization has difficulty making reasonable accommodations for the disability under the ADA, it could lead to termination. If the accommodations end up being too expensive for a small company (the construction of wheelchair-accessible areas) or hazardous (required medication that makes it dangerous to complete a job task such as driving or operating industrial machinery) the employer could have a case for termination.

Additionally, if the termination is unrelated to the disability such as downsizing due to an economic downturn or poor performance prior to the leave the employer can argue that the firing was legal.

That said, the employer cannot terminate a worker based solely on the necessity of reasonable accommodations or because of the disability itself. The employee is protected against such illegal actions.

What can be done?

Unfortunately, many terminated employees feel powerless to do anything after they receive the bad news from their employer. While the employer can make a case that the termination has nothing to do with the disability, the employee can seek legal guidance to prove the termination was illegal. It is crucial that the employee documents every conversation and saves a copy of all paperwork presented to the employer prior to or during the approved leave. With this information in hand, the fired worker can start building a case for wrongful termination.