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Crossroads of the FMLA, the ADA, and Workers’ Compensation

Whether or not your job is protected when you are hurt on the job can be confusing.  If you get hurt on the job in Indiana, you very well may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.  Workers’ compensation is an accident insurance program paid by employers that provides employees who get hurt at work with medical, rehabilitation and income benefits.  But what about your job?  Is it protected if you are unable to work due to an on-the-job injury?  Not necessarily.  In the case Frampton v. Central Indiana Gas Company, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that it is unlawful for an employer to fire an employee in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim.  However, the law only prohibits retaliatory discharge and does not speak to whether an employer can fire an employee who is unable to work due to injury.  The harsh reality is that Indiana’s workers’ compensation laws have no such protections.

The FMLA and the ADA

However, there are two federal laws that can protect your job if you are unable to work – the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  The FMLA is a federal law that applies to employers with 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius.  It provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to employees to deal with their own serious health condition or that of an immediate family member.  The ADA is a federal law that applies to employers with 15 or more employees that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on disability; and also requires employers to provide disabled employees with a “reasonable accommodation,” which may include time off of work.

Intersection of the Laws

There is often confusion about how these laws work when they intersect.  There is a common misperception that if an employee qualifies for relief under one law, she is automatically disqualified from others.  That is simply not true.  For instance, if an employee has suffered an injury at work, she may qualify for workers’ compensation relief.  But, since Indiana workers’ compensation laws do not provide protected leave, if that employee must miss time from work in relation to that injury, she may need to request time off work under the FMLA or the ADA to protect her job while she is absent.  Similarly, if a workplace injury results in the employee becoming disabled, an employer may need to provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation as a result of the workplace injury.  There are also occasions where an employee may be able to extend a medical leave beyond the 12 weeks provided under the FMLA by requesting a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Even though it is illegal for an Indiana employer to retaliate against an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim, that does not necessarily protect the employee’s job if they are forced to miss work in connection with their injury.  It may be necessary for an employee who is injured, disabled, or experiencing a medical issue to invoke the protections of more than one law depending on the circumstances.  Employers must abide by the requirements of all of these laws and cannot skirt one by hiding behind another.