I was fired because of my hepatitis C: Was this legal?

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Question:

I started a new job last year, and told my employer then that I suffer from hepatitis C. Everything was fine until I started a new treatment that made me quite ill and forced me to miss work. They fired me. Do I have any rights here?

Answer:

Your hepatitis C may bring you under the protections of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We say "may" because having a medical condition or physical impairment, even one that is quite serious, does not necessarily mean that you have a "disability" under the ADA. And if you don't have a disability, you don't get the protections offered by the law, no matter how sick you are.

So what is a disability? It is anything that "substantially impairs a major life activity," including major bodily functions. Obviously, that statement leaves a lot of room for interpretation and, in the end, the facts of your own case will determine whether you are found to have a disability. Some people with hepatitis have been deemed to have a disability, others not.

Under the ADA, employers with more than 15 employees must make a "reasonable accommodation" for an employee's disability, and they can't discriminate against employees with disabilities. In some cases, courts have found that giving an employee with a disability medical leave or a modified work schedule is a reasonable accommodation; others have found that granting employees long leave times is too much to ask of an employer.

The best thing for you to do is contact your local office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces the ADA. Its local offices are listed at the agency's website at www.eeoc.gov

Depending on how large your employer is, how long you worked there, and the seriousness of your condition, you might also have qualified for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If your condition qualified you for FMLA leave, it should have been offered to you. For information about the FMLA and similar state laws, see Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).

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