1. What Is the Doctors Note for Work Law​?
2. Contents of a Doctor's Note
3. Doctor's Notes and Accommodations
4. Privacy Laws Under HIPAA
5. FMLA Protection Regarding Doctor's Notes
6. Steps Employers Should Consider in Light of the Court's Decision
7. No Guarantees Even With a Note
8. When Is a Doctor's Note Required?
9. Is It Illegal for an Employer Not to Accept Doctors' Notes?
10. Legal Matters
11. Don't Overlook the Obvious
12. Termination Is a Touchy Subject

Updated June 18, 2020:

What Is the Doctors Note for Work Law​?

What is a doctor's note for work law? Sometimes an employee has to take time off work as a result of illness. He or she may have to provide a doctor's note to verify that they were ill. The employer can also ask for a doctor's note when accommodating the disability of an employee. Employers sometimes require the note and are able to do so under the law as long as the sick note policy does not infringe on the workers' right to privacy and freedom from discrimination.

Employers have the right to ask for a note from the physician when an employee takes time off for sickness, but they must apply the policy equally to all employees. An employer can require employees to turn in a doctor's note when they are off for more than three consecutive days and cite sickness as the reason. What an employer cannot do is require an employee to submit a sick note each time they take a sick day and let other employees off the hook by not requiring a note at all.

Contents of a Doctor's Note

A doctor's note can only state that the physician examined the named employee on a certain date and time and list the dates the employee is to be kept from working as a result of illness. Any more details than that and the note may be at risk of violating laws that cover patient confidentiality.

If an employer is concerned about a contagious disease, it can request a doctor's note that states the employee is not contagious before returning to work. The employer must be able to demonstrate that this is a necessity for the business.

Doctor's Notes and Accommodations

When an employee needs special accommodations due to a disability, an employer can ask for a doctor's note that verifies the disability and need for accommodation. It can also be asked for when the disability is not readily apparent such as a heart condition or arthritis. What the employer cannot do with the note is to use it as a reason for discriminating against or firing the employee.

Privacy Laws Under HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is a set of national standards that protect the privacy of medical records for individuals. It is usually not a violation of HIPAA to request a note from a doctor if an employer needs information about sick leave, worker's compensation, or health insurance. An employer has to keep medical information separated from the personnel file of the employee.

FMLA Protection Regarding Doctor's Notes

Court cases have established that an employee's personal testimony combined with some medical evidence, such as a doctor's note, is enough to demonstrate that the absence of work was due to a "serious health condition" and the employee is protected by the FMLA's prohibition on retaliatory or disciplinary action related to the leave of absence. However, there must be some kind of medical documentation in order to back up the employee's statement that they were ill and unable to work.

Steps Employers Should Consider in Light of the Court's Decision

Employers should take heed of the court decisions and create a system for handling doctor's notes when employees become ill. They should turn the issue over to human resources and other trained personnel to handle the sick leave with the employee instead of leaving it to a manager or supervisor. It diminishes the risk of retaliatory action on part of the supervisory employee, which can lead to an unwanted lawsuit brought by the employee. Employees are not required to request FMLA leave in order to gain protection from the law. Instead, the employer bears the burden of complying with the FMLA and has to recognize that an employee who has taken extensive sick leave and supplies a physician's note backing up their illness cannot be fired or disciplined.

No Guarantees Even With a Note

States with at-will employment laws give employers the freedom to fire someone even if they're sick and has adhered to company policy with a sick note. It's up to the employee to take legal action against their employer if they got fired. The employee may have been taking excessive sick leave days and impacting the operation. In this instance, the employer has the option to fire an employee who's not performing as required.

However, an employer can't do as they please when it comes to sick leave requirements. They cannot ask about the nature of the illness as this can lead to a discrimination claim from the employee.

When Is a Doctor's Note Required?

Federal and state laws provide guidance on how and when an employer can request medical documentation from an employee. In the event the employee requests leave under the FMLA, a doctor's note may be required by the employer regardless of how long the employee anticipates a leave of absence. If a state does not have a doctor's note law, the company can dictate its own requirements for a physician's note.

Is It Illegal for an Employer Not to Accept Doctors' Notes?

The short answer is, it depends. If an employee is working in a state with no doctor's note laws, the company is free to establish its own policies for illness related absence. The only time it's illegal for an employer to not accept a note is when the employee has a medical need and is using the FMLA to take time off. The FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of time off work for medical related needs and the employer cannot retaliate by firing or otherwise disciplining the employee.

When an employee qualifies and takes leave under FMLA, they must notify their employer of their status. But, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employees are under no obligation to provide copies of medical records or talk about details that relate to their injuries or illnesses. That information is considered private under the law. However, employers can ask employees to provide medical certification that the condition in question does exist.

A doctor's note that has been signed and dated and written on the doctor's letterhead along with a general description of the condition(s) is usually sufficient. The employer can also contact the doctor or facility for confirmation of the information.

Don't Overlook the Obvious

Some illnesses and injuries have a visible appearance in such a way that the employer can see there's something wrong and probably won't insist on a doctor's note right away. However, if the injury is severe, such as a broken arm or other impairment that prevents the employee from doing their job, the employer might face the decision to lay the employee off or keep them on the payroll on a part-time basis. In a situation like this, a doctor's note may not sway the decision of the employer.

Termination Is a Touchy Subject

As previously mentioned, many states have at-will employment laws which enable employers to fire employees at any time for any reason except discrimination. That means an employer can fire an employee even if they have a doctor's note and haven't used FMLA. An employer can't fire an employee for filing worker's compensation, nor can they fire them if the employee has become disabled and a reasonable accommodation can be made.

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