Employers in the United States are generally free to adopt employment at-will policies that give them the freedom to terminate employees at any time for any reason or for no reason at all. However, collective bargaining agreements and written employment contracts may contain clauses limiting the instances in which the employer can terminate employment. Furthermore, federal and state laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act forbid discrimination against employees on the basis of health reasons. Termination on these grounds opens the employer up to a legal suit for unfair dismissal.
An employee is hired at-will when there is no specific contract, agreement or mutual understanding contravening the employer’s right to terminate the employee for good cause, bad cause or no reason at all. Employers freely adopt this policy and may even insist that a prospective employee sign an at-will agreement before starting a job. However, application of the employment policy is subject to the law, and an employer is prohibited from dealing with the employee in an unlawful manner. The employer cannot dismiss an employee on medical grounds without having taken reasonable steps to accommodate him.
The Family Medical Leave Act provides that employees working for public agencies and medicum-sized private firms who have worked for at least a year and up to 1250 hours are entitled to medical leave. The employee may request up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave when she is unable to work because of a serious health condition, the birth or adoption of a child, or she needs to care for an immediate family member who is suffering health problems. The Act safeguards the employee’s job by stating that the employee must be restored to their original position and pay after returning from their leave. The employer cannot refuse to grant an eligible employee leave and should also not interfere with the exercise of this right. Further, it is unlawful for the employer to count leave days as lack of attendance and use it as a reason to dismiss the employee.
Disabled persons are protected by law from discriminatory actions that keep them from fully participating in all aspects of life -- especially employment, which is the source of livelihood. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life functions. The Act makes it unlawful for an employer to treat an employee unfavorably because they are disabled. Dismissing the employee for health reasons is a good example of such breach of the law. Instead, the employer is expected to provide reasonable accommodations to the affected employee giving them time off for treatment, allowing flexible schedules and taking any other measures that would facilitate the employee at work.
If an employer fails to adhere to the provisions of the law prohibiting him from dismissing the employee on the basis of health concerns, then the employee has recourse. The aggrieved employee may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission or institute a suit in court depending on the reason identified for the dismissal or where no reason is given. The courts or the commission will hear the matter and interpret the law to give effect to the employment rights that are contained therein. The trend has been for the courts and the commission to rule against employers who have dismissed their employees purely for health reasons.