Can My Boss Fire Me if I’m Hospitalized?
While no one plans to get injured or sick, life can be unexpected at times—and for many U.S. workers, employment is one of the first things that comes to mind when dealing with the aftermath of illness or injury.
From extended hospitalization to frequent follow-up appointments to rehabilitative therapy, it's crucial for Tennessee workers to understand how such factors can affect our physical, emotional, and financial health. Part of this means ensuring you have a job to come back to.
Can employers fire hospitalized workers without cause in Tennessee? Keep reading to learn how at-will employment can affect hospitalized workers and what steps to take to protect your rights while ill.
What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination in Tennessee?
Part of caring for yourself during any type of medical leave is ensuring your rights remain protected in your place of work. While many employers are sympathetic and understanding in the face of unexpected illness or injury, others aren’t as ethical.
For some, an employee’s hospitalization can offer the opportunity to act on ulterior motives—firing one of few employees of color, for instance, or terminating the only female worker in the office. That’s why it’s crucial for sick or hospitalized employees to ensure their rights remain protected until their return, however long it may be.
Can an employer lawfully fire a hospitalized employee? To answer this, we must first understand the concept of at-will employment.
At-Will Employment in Tennessee
Tennessee is an at-will employment state, meaning that employers can technically terminate any employee for any reason at any time.
However, there can be exceptions to this. Federal law protects Tennessee workers against workplace discrimination on the basis of “protected classes” defined by the EEOC, including:
- Gender (including gender identity)
- Sex (including sexual orientation, pregnancy, and pregnancy-related conditions)
- National origin
When an employer fires an employee based on one of the above, this is considered wrongful termination in Tennessee. Essentially, this occurs when employers fire workers for any reason that goes against state and federal laws.
Below are some of the primary laws that protect Tennessee workers from wrongful termination:
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in several areas, including termination. Suppose your hospitalization is due to a disability as defined by the ADA. In that case, your employer must provide reasonable accommodations, such as a leave of absence, unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the business.
Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that requires eligible employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. The FMLA also requires that employees’ group health benefits be maintained during the leave.
The FMLA applies to all public agencies (including state, local, and federal employers), local education agencies, and private-sector employers with at least 50 employees. However, while the FMLA is an excellent safeguard against wrongful termination, a notable downside is its limited applicability.
For workers employed by businesses with less than 50 employees, seeking protection against wrongful termination while on medical leave can be tricky. For employees at non-covered organizations without FMLA protections, it's crucial to consult with a knowledgeable employment lawyer as soon as possible to review their rights and understand the legal options available to them.
In some cases, state or local laws can apply to afford small-business workers the legal safeguards they deserve to maintain their economic security.
FMLA & Hospitalization
If you're a Tennessee worker who has been hospitalized, the FMLA can provide crucial protections. Under the FMLA, hospital care qualifies for FMLA leave. This means if you're admitted to a hospital and meet other eligibility requirements, you may take FMLA leave to recover without fear of losing your job or health insurance.
Can Employers Terminate Hospitalized Employees in TN?
While laws like the FMLA and ADA offer protection, they don't make employees immune from termination. Generally, a Tennessee employer can lawfully terminate a hospitalized employee under the following circumstances:
- Performance or conduct issues – If the employee has a history of poor performance or misconduct unrelated to their hospitalization or disability, the employer may have a lawful reason to terminate.
- Business Necessity – If the employee's prolonged absence causes significant disruption to business operations and the employer can demonstrate this necessity, termination might be lawful.
- Exhaustion of Leave – If an employee has used up all their protected FMLA leave and cannot return to work, the employer may lawfully terminate the employee.
It's essential to remember that every employment dispute is unique. If you're facing employment issues related to hospitalization or medical leave, it’s important to consult with an experienced employment attorney to understand your rights and options.
5 Tips to Protect Your Rights During Medical Leave
Here are some steps Tennessee employees can take to protect their rights during medical leave:
- Consult with a trusted attorney – If you believe your employee rights were violated under the FMLA, it's crucial to seek legal representation immediately. A qualified lawyer can help fortify your case with sufficient evidence and prevent large and powerful companies from exploiting wronged workers.
- Understand your eligibility – To be eligible for FMLA leave, you must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.
- Communicate with your employer – It's important to communicate as soon as possible with your employer about your need for FMLA leave. While the FMLA allows you to provide notice as soon as practicable, usually within one or two business days of learning of your need for leave, advance notice is required when the need for leave is foreseeable.
- Provide certification – Your employer can require you to provide certification from a healthcare provider to confirm that you have a serious health condition. If asked, you have at least 15 calendar days to provide it.
- Maintain comprehensive medical records – Keep records of all communications with your employer about your FMLA leave and any documents that you provide or receive. This can be helpful if there's a dispute about your FMLA leave.
Passionate Advocacy for Wronged Workers in the Mid-South
Since 1980, our seasoned employment lawyers at Donati Law, PLLC have successfully represented wronged workers in Memphis and beyond. With an exclusive focus on employee rights, our clients trust us to provide the high-end representation they deserve in the face of workplace misconduct, from sexual harassment to wage and hour violations. If you’ve been unfairly treated in the workplace, you can count on our firm to deliver the reliable advocacy you deserve.
Wrongfully terminated? Our seasoned employment lawyers can fight to restore your rights. Call (901) 209-5500 to schedule a consultation.