I have blogged previously about the pitfalls of filling out applications for disability benefits without seeking the advice of an attorney. Simply stating you have a disabling medical condition and providing a few records from your physician is not likely to convince an insurance company to pay you, especially if your condition is a mental illness, back injury, or some other impairment which is not obvious. Yet, there are other pitfalls and recurring problems I have witnessed with clients that warrant a more in-depth review of the entire disability application process.
In this first blog, I’ll discuss what you need to be thinking about if you are considering applying for long term disability (LTD) or social security benefits (SSDI), but are still employed. You may already be on some type of leave, either Family & Medical Leave or short term disability. Too often, the employer is eager to rid itself of what it perceives as an unproductive worker and may push you towards leaving your job and applying for LTD. They will not always tell you that it is the insurance company’s decision whether to pay benefits, and the insurance company may have a different view of whether you are “totally disabled.” Unfortunately, some employees resign prematurely expecting to receive disability benefits and then find themselves without any income at all.
So before you apply for disability benefits, consider whether there are any steps your employer can take to accommodate your disability and help you continue working. These accommodations may be an adjustment of your hours, reassignment of minor tasks, providing you certain equipment (for example, a hands-free telephone headset for someone suffering from neck pain), or even a short period of additional leave after Family & Medical Leave has been exhausted. There is no exclusive list of accommodations, so be creative and seek your doctor’s input. However, an employer has no duty to accommodate an employee who does not ask for help even if the employer is aware of the disability. So don’t be reluctant to ask for help! You don’t have to use magic words or cite the Americans With Disabilities Act. Just tell your employer “I have a disability and I need help.” Once you ask for help, it is then the employer’s responsibility to engage in an “interactive process” with you to find an accommodation that works for both of you. If you leave your employment without asking for help, the employer will not be at fault for not offering help and will not have to rehire you if your application for LTD benefits is denied.
As the interactive process implies, it is a two-way street. Both parties have to look for solutions and be reasonable. Asking a small employer to install an elevator in a two-story building so you don’t have to climb stairs may be unreasonable and a hardship for the employer, but asking to be relocated to an office on the first floor is not. Whether a particular accommodation is reasonable will depend on the circumstances of each case and, ultimately, may be up to a jury if the parties cannot agree. However, an employer’s refusal to engage in the interactive process at all is a clear violation of a disabled employee’s rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
If the employer works with you and provides a reasonable accommodation that enables you to keep working, then the goals of the Americans With Disabilities Act have been fulfilled and you won’t need to fill out any applications for disability benefits. In my next blog, I will discuss what to do if your employer refuses your request for a reasonable accommodation and either fires you or leaves you no choice but to leave work and apply for disability benefits.