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How Ableist Workplace Policies Harm Employees With Chronic Illnesses

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People automatically assume that because you are working, you are very healthy and there are no challenges in your life. That is not always the case or situation. Many of us who are chronically ill are still trying to work, in many cases full time, because we don’t have a choice. We need the income and the insurance. However, there are many employers who are not very accommodating to employees who have chronic illnesses. Sure, there are protections in place such as FMLA and ADA accommodations, but those aren’t always easy to enact or you aren’t always eligible for them based on your tenure with the company. And if you don’t have protections in place, there may be an unfair process in place to take time off for appointments, sick days, or even just for operations in general.

I have experienced this at a previous place of employment and needless to say, things did not end well at all. When I first took the job, I really hoped that my chronic illnesses would take a vacation, I wouldn’t have any issues, and would be able to accrue leave and do well. But I soon realized that I was not in a positive work environment and that quickly contributed to the flare-up of many of my conditions. I also had to fight many a day to get time off for doctor’s appointments and was questioned without end about why I needed time off for an hour or so for my appointments.

And then the unthinkable happened. I had been sick for several days, and nonetheless showed up to work because my employer made it seem like I would have lost my job had I called out. The building I was working in was very old, had known mold and other environmental issues, and despite my complaints about how they affected my health issues, nothing was done. There also was a contractor who worked in the building who had a communicable disease and was around employees and when concerns were voiced from multiple employees, they still did not remove this person, and he continued to work multiple shifts daily, which was a concern to me because of my weak immune system. But because I was new, I couldn’t evoke ADA accommodations or FMLA, so I had to deal with the consequences.

Eventually, I got so sick that one night, my heart started racing and I couldn’t stop coughing and I ended up having to call 911 to my home. I was rushed to the hospital and was admitted immediately. I spent a week in the hospital and when I called my employer to tell them I had been admitted the first day they showed concern and the second day they called me to ask “when I was coming back to work?” My mother, who never left my side the entire week, was furious. Here I was, on oxygen and heart monitors, struggling to breathe and survive and all they cared about was when I was coming back to work! I eventually was discharged from the hospital and put on bed rest for another week.

When I made it back to work, things were not the same. Any time I wanted off for an appointment, my two weeks off were brought up and I had to write an appeal to the department head for time off. This happened for the next six months. My health continued to decline as well. But my performance never faltered even though I had to take time off for my medical appointments, I would like to point out, even though my employer attempted to make that an issue.

Finally, one day, exactly one day before my one-year anniversary, I was terminated. My employer claimed it was because I wasn’t a fit for the job, but I knew it was because of my health issues. Now legally, I knew they couldn’t say that and they knew if they said that they could get sued, but because I live in an “at will” state, they can give any reason to let someone go. For an entire year, I was consistently reminded that I was out from work for two weeks and in the hospital and there was not any understanding. I was always afraid to take time off for fear of termination. My work environment was not made for someone with chronic illnesses.

And the sad part is, this is all too common. Many of us have to lie about our conditions, or push through pain and symptoms to keep our jobs, or push off care because of our employers’ policies. Yes, there are federal laws in place to protect us, but employers find loopholes and ways to not abide by them and it makes it hard for those with invisible illnesses and disabilities.

I am happy to report that I have an employer now who advocates for me and there are things in place that support me and set me up for success. I still do worry when I take too much time off, but that is my own personal guilt, not guilt from my organization, which makes a world of difference. No employee should have to stress or become filled with anxiety when it comes to calling out sick, or having to ask for alternative work assignments because of their health. It not only dampens morale, but it inhibits productivity. Accommodating employees makes them feel more confident and they want to contribute and be productive and be members of the organization. Employers, look at your policies, be flexible, work with your employees, do what you can to accommodate them. After all, they are what makes your organization go round.

Originally published: December 12, 2021
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