As many businesses resume "in-person" operations, a return to the office may not be welcomed by all. An employee who seeks to continue working remotely may assert that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation for a disability. In some circumstances, an employee might even want to take a leave of absence.
In general, employers are permitted to ask for a doctor's note to confirm the need for employee leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), provided that certain requirements are met.
Under the ADA (which covers businesses with 15 or more workers), employers are permitted to seek a doctor's note when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, including a leave of absence or remote work. However, employers are not allowed to ask for such documentation when (1) the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation are obvious, or (2) the individual has already provided sufficient information to substantiate the existence of a qualifying disability and the need for accommodation.
The FMLA (which generally applies to companies employing 50 or more workers) affords qualifying employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. Covered employers are permitted to request a medical certification to confirm the need for leave in connection with a serious health condition of an employee or immediate family member. However, employers must adhere to several rules to avoid violating the law.
While doctors' notes can help employers determine whether and to what extent requested leave must be granted, they can also be a source of potential legal exposure if handled improperly. Accordingly, employers should carefully assess each request and seek legal assistance as needed.
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Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2022 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.