Diabetes and Employment Rights | what you should know

Nora Saul, M.S, R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E.

Nora Saul is a Certified Diabetes Educator and Manager of Nutritional Education at the Joslin Diabetes Center

If you have diabetes, the issue of your employment rights can seem a bit complicated. Still there are some basic guidelines anyone with diabetes who is or wants to become gainfully employed should know.

It pays to become familiar with the basic tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many statutes protecting people with diabetes are covered under this Act.

Since 1994 the Americans with Disabilities Act has covered all private and state/local government based employees with disabilities who are employed in companies with more than 15 employees.

The ADA “prohibits discrimination in all employment practices, including job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. It applies to recruitment, advertising, tenure, layoff, leave, fringe benefits, and all other employment-related activities.”

Many of you are probably thinking, but I don’t have a disability. Well, legal definitions are often different than common practice definitions.

The ADA defines diabetes as a disability “when it substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities. Diabetes also is a disability when it causes side effects or complications that substantially limit a major life activity. Even if diabetes is not currently substantially limiting because it is controlled by diet, exercise, oral medication, and/or insulin, and there are no serious side effects, the condition may be a disability because it was substantially limiting in the past (i.e., before it was diagnosed and adequately treated). Finally, diabetes is a disability when it does not significantly affect a person’s everyday activities, but the employer treats the individual as if it does.”

Based on this definition, actual determinations about who has a disability are made on a case-by-case basis.

Getting and Keeping a Job

Before you get the job

During the interview process employers cannot ask about your medical condition(s), including diabetes. Nor can they ask about your use of prescription drugs.

However, as long as it is company policy that is applied to everyone, once an offer has been extended, an employer may inquire about an applicant’s health or require a physical examination.

To Disclose or Not Disclose

In order to qualify as having a disability under the ADA you have to acknowledge that you have diabetes. There is no requirement that you tell prospective or current employers that you have diabetes for most types of jobs.

In positions requiring certain skills or abilities in which acute complications of diabetes may prohibit you from doing the job or could cause you undue harm, you must disclose that you have diabetes. Commercial driving is one such case.

On the Job

If you choose to tell your employer you have diabetes — or if the employer gains such knowledge through legitimate avenues, your job cannot be terminated simply because you have diabetes, as long as you are able to complete the requirements of the job with reasonable accommodation.

Reasonable accommodation requires that employers modify the job conditions to meet an employee’s needs, unless doing so would led to undue expense or hardship for the company.

For example, allowing an employee to eat snacks at his desk to avoid low blood glucose would be a reasonable accommodation that does not cause undue employer hardship. Having an employee who couldn’t lift 20lbs in a job that required lifting 5 to 80lbs as a major component of the position would present an undue hardship on the company.

Are there jobs that are off-limits to people with diabetes?

Although the number of jobs people with diabetes can’t hold is continually declining, there still are a few jobs that people who use insulin are restricted from.

People with diabetes who use insulin cannot hold a first class commercial pilot’s license or serve in certain positions in the military.

A lot has changed over the years; however. Commercial drivers who treat their diabetes with insulin can drive, if they obtain a Department of Transportation medical certification.

No longer are fire fighters, police officers and other law enforcement personnel prevented from serving because of diabetes. There are now fitness guidelines for these professions that can determine on a case-by-case basis a person’s competence for the job.

Know Your Rights

If you feel you are being discriminated on the job, it is important to understand your rights and gather information. Additional information on diabetes and employment can be found at:

ADA Information Line
(800) 514-0301

American Diabetes Association
www.diabetes.org

(800) 342-2383

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
www.eeoc.gov

(800) 669-4000

Occupational Safety and Health Administration
www.osha.gov

(800) 321-6742

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