Doctors Note for Work Law | What You Need to Know

Medical emergencies or illnesses can strike any employee. That is why legal doctor's notes exist, allowing employees to take time off work as a result of illness. If you're wondering what a doctor's note is and how it relates to the workplace, this guide is for you.

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What Is a Doctor's Note for Work Law?

Unfortunately, we all fall ill from time-to-time. This can impact an employee's ability to come to work. When an illness interferes with one's ability to work, a doctor's note may be required to verify that they were actually sick. In fact, employers often request a doctor's note and are able to do so based on the law.

However, they are only able to do so if their request does not interfere with the employee's privacy or as long as there isn't any discrimination. This means that although an employer is legally allowed to ask for a doctor's note, they must apply this sort of policy to all of their employees.

Under the law, employers have the right to ask for a doctor's note when an employee is off for more than three consecutive days, based on an illness. What an employer is not allowed to do, is request a note each time an employee takes a sick day but does not request notes from other employees under similar circumstances.

What Should a Doctor's Note Include?

In regards to the contents of a doctor's note, it can only state that a physician did, in fact, examine a specific employee on a specific date at a specific time. The note will also include the dates in which the employee is to refrain from working as a result of their illness.

If additional information is included, such details may violate a patient's confidentiality. In contrast, if an employer is concerned that an employee is contagious, they may request a doctor's note to ensure that the employee can return to work.

Accommodating an Employee's Needs

In other cases, the sudden onset of an illness may not be the issue. Instead, an employee may suffer from a disability that requires special accommodation. In this case, an employer can ask for a note in order to verify an apparent disability. For example, an employee may suffer from arthritis or a serious heart condition.

The point here is, an employer can request a doctor's note to verify the need for accommodation. However, they cannot use one's disability as a reason to discriminate or fire that individual.

Understand Your Rights Under HIPAA

HIPAA, formally known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act helps to ensure the privacy of medical records. This national set of standards support privacy laws so that individuals are protected. Based on this act, employees are able to take up to 12 weeks off of work for medical reasons, without being disciplined.

Although an employer will not violate HIPAA by requesting a doctor's note, they must ensure that all of the medical information obtained is kept separate from the employee's personnel file. If you are an employer, requesting a doctor's note can help verify the type of information required for cases involving workers' compensation, sick leave, or health insurance.

The Link Between a Doctor's Note and FMLA Protection

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides select employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. If a case goes to court, an employee's testimony should be supported by some sort of medical evidence, such as a doctor's note. If they are able to prove that they were absent from work due to a serious health condition or circumstance, they will be protected under the FMLA.

Of course, there are some stipulations associated with this act. For example, employees are only eligible if they work for a covered employer, and have been employed for at least 12 months. In addition, they need to have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours within that 12-month period and work at a location that employees at least 50 employees who reside within 75 miles. Find out more here.

Tips for Employers

As an employer, if you do go to court, be mindful of the decision made in court. That way, you can create a more effective system moving forward. If you have not yet faced a court case regarding an employee's absence, now is the time to develop a procedure for when employees become ill.

For example, if an employee is sick, this is a situation that should be handled by your human resources department. In most cases, they will be better trained to handle this type of issue, in comparison to a supervisor or manager. This will reduce the risk of retaliation or a potential lawsuit.

Please note: As an employer, you must comply with the FMLA. If an employee has taken extensive sick leave they cannot be fired or punished if they supply a legitimate doctor's note.

When a Doctor's Note Is Not Guaranteed

In most states, including Washington and California, there are at-will employment laws in place. This provides employers the freedom to fire an employee even if they were sick and provided a note as stated in the company policy. At that point, it would be up to the employee to take legal action.

Most often, this occurs when an employee takes extensive sick leave, negatively impacting company operations. With that being said, even when at-will employment laws are implemented, employers cannot ask about the nature of one's illness, as this may lead to a discrimination case.

If you currently operate a business in a state that does not have a doctor's note laws, you can dictate your own requirements in relation to a physician's note. However, there are also federal laws that you should be aware of. That is why proactive legal counsel is recommended in select situations.

Is It Illegal for an Employer Not to Accept an Employee's Doctor's Note?

Once again, this depends on the state and circumstances. As discussed above, in select states, where no doctor's note laws are enforced, a company is able to establish their own policies for illness-related absences. However, if an employee faces a medical need and uses the FMLA to take time off work, it is illegal for an employer to dismiss a doctor's note.

Know Your Rights and Obligations

Whether you are an employee or an employer, it is imperative that you understand your rights. As an employee, if you do take leave under the FMLA, you must notify your employer. However, as stated by the U.S. Department of Labor, you are not required to provide any medical records or speak about your medical condition.

As an employer, you can ask an employee to provide a medical certification that verifies that a condition does exist. A general description will often be included in a doctor's note and is generally sufficient. You are also legally able to contact the doctor to confirm that the note is legitimate.

Get Help from a Lawyer

The topic of termination is a touchy subject. That is why as an employee or employer before a situation gets to this point, you must ensure that you are taking the right steps. You can also seek legal counsel when a situation is either complex and/or unclear.

Thousands of people ask Thervo for legal advice every year. We connect them with our trusted network of over 5,000 lawyers to properly handle all their legal needs. If you require legal counsel, you can seek the support of employment law attorneys on Thervo.

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