Reasonable Accommodations for Hepatitis

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Question:

I have been diagnosed with hepatitis B. My doctor told me that most adults who contract Hepatitis B are able to clear the virus from their bodies and fully recover within months. Right now, though, I feel really crummy -- tired all the time and nauseated. Do I have the right to ask my employer for time off or for some changes in my job to help me manage the next few months?

Answer:

If your employer is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you are likely entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Private employers with at least 15 employees must comply with the ADA, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. 

First, you must determine whether your hepatitis B is a disability, as defined by the ADA. The ADA doesn't provide a list of conditions that qualify as disabilities. Instead, it instructs employers (and courts, if a legal dispute arises) to look at how the person's condition affects his or her ability to perform major life activities, such as sleeping, walking, thinking, seeing, and so on. Congress amended the ADA several years ago to make clear that major bodily functions (such as the proper functioning of the reproductive or endocrine systems) are major life activities, too. A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits their ability to perform any of these activities or functions has a disability under the ADA. 

By definition, hepatitis B impairs proper liver function, a major bodily function under the ADA. (Prior to the amendments adding major bodily functions to the list of major life activities, courts did not always find hepatitis B to qualify as a disability, even if it was chronic.) Because your liver functioning is impaired and you are suffering symptoms that interfere with your daily life, your hepatitis would most likely qualify as a disability. 

What reasonable accommodations you are entitled to depend on your job and your employer. An employer must make reasonable accommodations to allow an employee with a disability to do his or her job, unless providing the accommodation would create undue hardship: substantial difficulty or expense, considering the size, resources, and field of the employer. For the symptoms you have described, possible accommodations might include allowing you to take breaks from your job as needed, allowing you to work part-time or take time off while you recuperate, allowing you to telecommute, giving you time off as needed for medical appointments, or reassigning you temporarily to a position that is less physically demanding than your usual job. 

The ADA leaves it up to you and your employer to come up with accommodations that will be effective and are reasonable, given your job and the needs of your employer. To get the process started, write your employer a reasonable accommodation letter explaining your condition and your work-related needs, then be prepared to sit down with your manager or HR representative to come up with an accommodation plan. For tips on what your letter should include, see Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation. For lots of great ideas on accommodations, check out the website of the Job Accommodation Network

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