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What Are My Workplace Rights as a Parent to a Child with Disabilities?

Flexible work environments are a top priority for most parents of children with disabilities. Whether you need predictable time off or the ability to shift your schedule when something unexpected comes up, an accommodating employer makes tending to your kid’s needs so much less stressful.

Certain laws protect your right to have some amount of flexibility at work. But the landscape for working parents of disabled children can still be pretty murky. Here’s a closer look at what you may be entitled to, how to ask for the accommodations you need, and what you can do if your employer denies your requests.

What Are Workplace Accommodations?

A few different federal laws require employers to offer workplace accommodations, or adjustments to a person’s work environment, that make it possible for them to perform their duties:

  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons per year while still receiving the same health insurance coverage. You’re eligible if you’ve worked for your employer for at least a year, and the company employs at least 50 people within 75 miles of their offices.
  • Many states, counties, and municipalities have their own laws guaranteeing additional accommodations, so it’s worth digging into what applies to your local area. A good place to start is at A Better Balance, a justice advocacy organization that offers a state-by-state legal guide.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that an employer must provide adjustments for employees with disabilities that allow the disabled employee to get their work done to the same extent as employees without disabilities. (A disability is defined as any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.) See more below about how this may apply to caregivers.

How Do These Laws Protect Caregivers?

Here’s where things get a little murky. The protections that federal accommodation laws offer for parents of disabled kids are “woefully inadequate,” says Jack Tuckner, an attorney specializing in workplace rights based in New York City.

The ADA specifically applies to individuals with disabilities, not caregivers of children with disabilities. That said, the ADA does protect against associational disability discrimination, which means that your employer can’t single you out or make things harder for you because your child has a disability. That might mean passing you up for a promotion because you have to take the afternoon off once a month for your child’s doctor appointment, for example.

Of course, that kind of discrimination can sometimes be tough to prove, so “these claims are challenging,” says Tuckner. He adds that employers “often push back on letting employees use the right to time off to attend to basic caregiving responsibilities.” He points out, too, that protecting against associational disability discrimination doesn’t “address the fundamental issue of flexibility or reasonable accommodation,” since employers don’t have to offer reasonable accommodations that enable employees to care for disabled family members. Essentially, the ADA doesn’t require employers to make any accommodations for parents of kids with disabilities.

As for the FMLA? Those 12 weeks of annual leave can be used if you need time off to manage a serious health condition for yourself or for a family member. And you don’t have to take those 12 weeks all at once. “The law does give the right to take leave increments as small as one hour at a time for attending medical appointments or educational planning meetings,” says Chelsea Thompson, a legal fellow for A Better Balance. An educational planning meeting would be a conference with your child’s teacher or aide, for instance. Keep in mind that this time off doesn’t have to be paid, and you must meet the eligibility criteria mentioned earlier.

It’s unfortunately also not uncommon for employers to push back on the FMLA, especially if you want to use that time little by little to tend to your child’s needs as they come up. “A lot of employers see FMLA as something employees are supposed to use in a larger chunk of time,” says Thompson. Examples might be 12 weeks of parental leave for a new baby or 12 weeks of time off to recover from major surgery.

How to Assert Your Rights

If you need flexibility from your employer, you’ll likely have to ask for it. It’s best to have a conversation upfront, either during the interview process or shortly after you’re hired, to confirm that this is the kind of workplace that’ll work for your needs, Thompson notes. But ultimately, “you can ask for accommodations at any time,” she adds.

If you’re already employed, start by approaching your direct supervisor or your company’s HR department. Highlight your contributions to the company, ask directly for what you need, and be ready to talk about how the accommodation will benefit both you and your employer, Tuckner recommends. “Perhaps most importantly, document your requests in writing and follow up in writing after each conversation so that you’ll have a paper trail” of your requests and the company’s responses, he says. “You don’t want to do this by the water cooler.”

When you’re asking for time off that should be covered by the FMLA, make sure to frame your request as one that’s legally protected. You could say something like: “What if I take my intermittent FMLA for two hours, three days per week, until I hit my 12-week-per-year limit?” suggests Tuckner. 

If your initial request is dismissed, consider a second conversation to ask more about why your employer said no and express your willingness to find a solution that works for both of you, Tuckner recommends. Again, document your request and the response you receive in writing.

Keep in mind that, because what you’re asking for might not be lawfully guaranteed, your employer can not only say no, they can also potentially make things harder for you. It’s not uncommon for employers to question a parent’s commitment to work, regardless of their child’s health status. “Those biases amplify when an employer knows that this parent is a parent to a child with special needs,” Thompson says. “They might be making decisions about promotions or offering additional hours or shifts with those biases in mind.”

When to Consider Legal Action

If you’ve asked multiple times for accommodations and you and your employer haven’t been able to come to an agreement, or if you feel like your employer is treating you differently after you asked for an accommodation or after you’ve taken time off for your child’s needs, that’s the time consider consulting with an employment lawyer or a disability or worker’s rights organization, Tuckner recommends.

Taking legal action can guarantee your rights, or in some cases, can guarantee you an exit package, if you feel it’s time to leave.

Together, you and the lawyer or organization can discuss your experience and determine whether your case is strong enough to stand up in court. “Legal action can be a complex and time-consuming process, so one needs to be fully informed about the potential outcomes and practical applications,” says Tuckner.

Finding Family-Friendly Employers

A willingness to be accommodating ultimately comes down to an individual employer or company culture. But in general, government entities, larger corporations, and organizations with established diversity and inclusion policies tend to provide more accommodations for caregivers. “These employers often have more resources and a structured approach to supporting work-life balance, recognizing the value of retaining skilled employees by accommodating their caregiving responsibilities,” Tuckner says. Indeed, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have all compiled lists of top companies that offer flexible work and prioritize employees’ work-life balance.


Resources & Further Reading


[1] https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/benefits-leave/fmla

[2] https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fmla

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