Articles & Updates

The Interplay of Workers’ Compensation, FMLA & ADA

Apr 20, 2023 | Articles & Updates

Article by Courtney Brennan, Esq. and Mary-Jo Rebelo, Esq.

When an employee becomes injured on the job, becomes ill, or has a disability they may be entitled to medical and/or disability-related leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In addition, state workers’ compensation laws have leave provisions that may factor into the analysis.  These cases must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and depending on the circumstance, one or more of these laws can apply to the same employee.  This article explores the interplay between the ADA, FMLA, and Workers’ Compensation and the considerations to assist employers in determining their responsibilities regarding medical and disability-related leave requests.

Although the ADA and FMLA are structured to support employees with physical or mental ailments, they have different leave requirements. The purpose of the ADA is to bring qualified individuals with disabilities into the workforce and retain them by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations, so long as it does not create undue hardship.  The goal of the FMLA is to permit workers time off for family or health reasons that constitute a serious health condition.  Workers’ compensation provides compensation for lost wages and medical treatment for employees facing a work-related injury.

Understanding the intersection of these laws begins by understanding when an employee qualifies for leave or reasonable accommodation:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Employer Coverage: Applies to employers with 15 or more employees

Employee Eligibility: Applicants or employees who are qualified individuals with a disability who can perform the job’s essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation; No length of service requirement

Leave Rules: Requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees with disabilities, which can include modification to work schedules, such as leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Employer Coverage: Applies to employers with 50 or more employees

Employee Eligibility: Employees who work at a worksite with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius, have worked there for at least 12 months, and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months immediately preceding the leave

Leave Rules: Provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month period for employee (or family member) with a “serious health condition”

Workers’ Compensation

Employer Coverage: Any employer with at least 1 employee

Employee Eligibility: Employees who have a work-related injury or illness

Leave Rules: No defined limit to leave

Overlap between the Laws

Under certain circumstances, provisions of these laws may overlap.  This overlap generally stems from the use of the terms illness, injury, or disability in each statute.  It is important to note where the definitions differ.  The ADA’s definition of “disability” is different than “serious health condition” under the FMLA.  If an employee has a serious health condition that also qualifies as a disability, the ADA and FMLA protections overlap.  If an employee suffers a work-related injury that requires hospitalization for more than three days and qualifies as a serious health condition, the FMLA and workers’ compensation will overlap.

An employee who is protected by both the ADA and FMLA, for example, is entitled to the rights afforded by both laws.  In other words, 12 weeks of job-protected leave with benefits continuation under the FMLA, and a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to perform the job’s essential functions under the ADA.  Importantly, if the law allows different rights in the same situation, the employee is entitled to whichever provides the greater benefit.  Managers and Human Resource professionals should note this may depend on what the employee desires. If, for example, an employee is qualified for FMLA leave but wants to work with a reasonable accommodation, the employer must provide the accommodation.  If the employee could work with a reasonable accommodation but chooses to take FMLA leave, employers must allow the leave.

If an employee’s work-related injury or illness is also a serious health condition, state workers’ compensation and FMLA may both apply.  Light Duty assignments are one area where FMLA and Workers’ Compensation differ. Under the FMLA, an employee is entitled to 12 weeks of leave. The employee does not have to come back to work early to a different position or “light duty” work. Under workers’ compensation, however, if the company offers light duty work that the employee is medically capable of doing, the employee typically has to accept that position or lose benefits under workers’ compensation.  Importantly, an employee who accepts a light-duty position as opposed to remaining on FMLA leave does not give up their right to be reinstated to their former position, at least for the 12-month FMLA period.

Additional Leave Time

If an employee has exhausted their FMLA time, consider whether the employee qualifies as an individual with a disability.  If so, the ADA may entitle this employee to additional protections, such as additional leave time or a reasonable accommodation to the job for the disability.  Employers should always consider whether the ADA factors into the FMLA equation.

Employers should revisit their documentation process for handling employees’ leave requests.  Companies who outsource their claims handling to third parties should not neglect in-house record keeping. Implementing training for managers on these laws can lower exposure in what can otherwise become costly litigation for leave-interference claims.  Violations of these laws can trigger lost wages, back pay, reinstatement, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. In short, guide employers to carefully consider each law individually when an employee needs to take leave.