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Is your boss allowed to fire you for being sick? No matter what kind of business you’re in and what kind of work you do, becoming too ill to work can be as physically devastating as it is financially destructive if you’re suddenly unable to perform your job duties. An illness may force you to take a leave of absence to recover, but some employers may opt to fire or lay you off due to an inability to do the job. In those kinds of situations, you may find yourself wondering if that’s even legal, which leads to the question: Can I sue my employer if I’m fired for being sick?

Employment laws are sure to vary depending on where you live, but deciding on whether to sue your employer for wrongful or constructive dismissal after getting fired for being sick depends on a number of factors. In most cases, a company can’t terminate an employee based solely on the fact that they’re sick. Human rights and employment standards legislation almost uniformly prohibit employers from firing people for being sick, though there are certain circumstances in which a company or organization may have no other choice but to let someone go. 

Human rights codes and an employer’s duty to accommodate

In many jurisdictions, employers are given quite a bit of leeway to hire and fire employees as they see fit. In many U.S. states, for instance, they have what’s known as “at-will” employment rules, which allow companies to fire employees for any number of reasons, whether they’re downsizing or simply unhappy with an employee’s performance.

That means they’re not obligated to give a worker notice that they’re going to be terminated, but they may be compelled to provide severance pay or notice in lieu or a combination of both. However, that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to fire people for just anything. In general, they can’t fire someone for being ill, especially if that illness amounts to a physical disability that is protected by human rights codes, or in the case of American employees, the Americans with Disabilities Act

Fired for being sick

For most workers, calling in sick for a day or two isn’t usually a big deal. Being temporarily immobilized by a cold or flu or even COVID-19 might necessitate someone to take a few days off to recover. Some companies may want a doctor’s note to corroborate an employee’s claims of illness, though it’s not necessarily required by law to provide one just because your employer requests it. Some doctors may be reluctant to provide a sick note to an employee who is off work for a short period of time, although individual circumstances vary widely, as do the types of illnesses that require someone to take time off.

In the case of chronic illnesses such as cancer or other life-threatening ailments, employers are almost universally required to accommodate employees with illnesses severe enough that they’re considered “disabilities” under labour codes, employment standards, or other legislation dealing with employment regulations. 

fired for being sick

Employers and undue hardship 

An employer’s duty to accommodate disabled or sick employees is not without limitations or exceptions though. In some jurisdictions, a company can claim that they’ve exhausted all options to try and find a position for someone whose illness or condition limits their ability to get the job done. In those cases, employers are allowed to claim that the accommodation attempts were unsuccessful and caused “undue hardship” in the workplace, essentially meaning that the situation has become untenable for both the employer and the employee.

Accommodating employees with physical disabilities can involve everything from providing a wheelchair ramp to specialized computer equipment for deaf or blind individuals. Accommodating illnesses that constitute a disability might be more difficult to define. For example, an employee with chronic asthma might be moved from a position that involves working with harmful chemicals or fumes that exasperate their condition.  

Undue hardship

Employers are usually expected to at least try to accommodate employees who are ill or disabled or injured. Human rights laws and employment regulations dictate that companies can’t fire people in a discriminatory fashion based on several protected grounds such as sex, religion, family status, and of course, disabilities. But courts and policymakers recognize that accommodation isn’t always possible for some jobs, and if an employer can prove that the accommodation requirements cause “undue hardship,” they can indeed fire a sick employee. 

To prove that accommodating a sick employee is causing undue hardship, a company or organization must be able to demonstrate how it is unsustainable financially to keep someone on when they’re ill. If other employees’ safety or health is affected, or the cost is shown to be unreasonably high, an employer can typically argue that undue hardship exists after trying and failing to accommodate a sick employee.

Proving undue hardship is not necessarily easy and is dependent upon a variety of conditions such as what kind of job a worker’s expected to do and what kind of costs are involved with accommodation measures. Small businesses with thin margins and small workforces, in turn, can likely argue the undue hardship of accommodation easier than big corporations or large non-profit organizations. 

Sue my employer if I’m fired for being sick conclusion 

Getting fired from your job for any reason can be a life-changing event but getting fired due to illness can surely add insult to literal injury. If you’ve been let go by your employer for any reason, especially for being ill or disabled, finding an employment lawyer to find out your legal options is a crucial step in a quest for justice. 

Employment laws and human rights codes prohibit employers from firing people based on a variety of discriminatory grounds. Having an illness or disability is rarely if ever a just cause for termination, and in the case of people fired while on sick leave or for taking time off due to illness, they may have a good case for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. There’s no substitute for quality legal advice from an employment lawyer in such a situation, so if you’ve been fired from your job for being sick, it’s a safe bet to make on your first call. 

Author: Alistair Vigier is the CEO of clearwaylaw.com, a website that allows people to leave ratings for barristers and solicitors in different countries.