Your Job and Your Rights

If you’ve recently found out that you have coronary artery disease, you may be wondering if you can return to work. For most people, it’s okay to get back to work.

“Treatments for coronary artery disease are so much improved today” that more people with the disease are able to work today than ever before, says Haider Warraich, MD, associate director of the heart failure program at VA Boston Healthcare System.

Concrete example: the study of Warraich in 2018 in the medical journal Circulation examined more than 9,000 people who had had a heart attack and found that among those who were employed, only 1 in 10 people reduced their working hours or quit their job.

If you return to work, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects your right to request any changes you need to perform your duties. Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation”, such as a different work schedule or a transfer to a more suitable position.

But not everyone with CAD can get back to full blast. If your job involves stressful 60-hour work weeks, for example, your cardiologist may advise you to cut back or even move to a less demanding career, says Warraich.

But for the most part, “As more and more employers have become more accommodating and we have achieved better treatment, we are finding that the majority of patients with coronary artery disease are able to return successfully,” says- he.

Here are some tips from employment lawyers on how to navigate your work after CAD:

Start with the human resources department. If you have a great relationship with your boss, you can contact them first. But you’d better get in touch with your human resources department, says Jeffrey Rhodes, employment lawyer at McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes, LLP in Arlington, Virginia. “They are the ones who know best what they are legally supposed to do under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he says. Your human resources department also knows that it must abide by ADA confidentiality rules, so it must know exactly what it can and cannot reveal to your supervisors.

“Unfortunately, there are times when people who have very friendly relations with their employers share too much, which they may later regret,” he says.

Describe the accommodations you expect. Before contacting HR, discuss in detail with your cardiologist what you will need to be able to return to work successfully, says Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit group based in Washington, DC.

These may include:

  • Free time for medical appointments.
  • More frequent breaks. If you are up all day, for example, you can ask for a scooter to help you get around or for permission to sit instead of standing while you work.
  • Lift limits. This request is especially common if you have had surgery or a recent heart attack. Over time, as you recover, you will be able to lift more.
  • Breaks to take your medication.
  • Travel limits.

It’s a good idea to ask your cardiologist to write a letter explaining why you need the accommodation and for how long, says Ndjatou. A request does not guarantee that you will get it.

“Your employer must, by law, seek your request, but if he can prove that it is very expensive or disrupts his operations, he can legally refuse it,” explains Ndjatou.

But they must make an effort in good faith. “They can’t just have a conversation with you and then say, ‘We can’t do this,’” says Ndjatou. If you are requesting a transfer to a less stressful position due to your coronary artery disease, for example, they should actively seek opportunities within the company to move you, even if none are currently available.

Request family and medical leave (FMLA). This federal law can protect you if you need to take time off work to recover from your coronary heart disease. You may be eligible for the FMLA if:

  • You have been working for your employer for at least 1 year.
  • During the past year, you worked at least 1,250 hours for your employer (approximately 24 hours per week).
  • Your employer employs at least 50 people within a 75 mile radius of your workplace.

If you are covered, you are entitled to a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year. Your employer cannot fire you for taking time off or refuse to give you back your job when you return. They must also continue to pay for your health insurance.

Stay speechless at work. You may be close to your coworkers, but you should always be careful about anything you reveal about accommodations related to your coronary artery disease, Rhodes says.

“Keep in mind that if you share personal and private health information with coworkers, it can spread throughout the company and have negative consequences,” he says. “If that happens, it would be difficult to hold your employer to account, as it would be difficult to prove that it was because of his lack of confidentiality. Disclose just enough to explain why you need housing, but keep the in-depth discussions for your friends outside of the office.

Know your legal options. Your employer cannot retaliate against you for requesting accommodations, Rhodes says. If you feel you are facing retaliation or are being pressured into resigning, find a local labor lawyer for advice. You can also file a complaint yourself with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They will notify your business within 10 days and investigate if there are valid reasons to believe there has been discrimination. The average time to investigate and resolve a charge is approximately 10 months.

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