Addressing Medical Issues – Why is this Considered the Most Difficult Area Facing Managers?

The laws and regulations covering various medical problems are complex, but understanding them will make your job as a manager easier.

I am told it’s time to stop beating up on the Federal Labor Relations Authority and move on. OK. Even though the case search engine on their website hasn’t worked in living memory and there so much more to justly abuse them about, it is time for a change.

What makes medical issues such a problem for managers?

The answer to this has to do with having to use different approaches to identifying employee medical problems depending on the circumstances. Employees are subject to illness and injury off and unconnected to the job as well as job related or caused illnesses or injuries. They may be entitled to care for ill or injured family members. Complex issues such as compensation, leave, temporary or permanent job modification, light or limited duty (they’re different, you know.), reasonable accommodation, or discrimination can leave supervisors and managers scratching their heads so much they may be entitled to workers compensation benefits themselves.

In addition, medical matters are often considered the most private of areas for people. Employees are often reluctant to provide medical evaluations for a whole slew of reasons including denial of the problem.

The Federal workforce is aging and employees find themselves the victims of illnesses they thought were reserved only for the “old”. As a society, we routinely take much more medication than our parents and vastly more than our grandparents. There is much more dependence on medication to smooth out difficult times, to address sleep disorders, counteract what used to be considered psychological problems but may now recognized as chemical imbalances in the body.

There is a tremendous expansion both of our knowledge of what’s wrong with us and our reliance and demands on medicine to address those wrongs. The reality facing managers is that the workers they supervise are much more likely to bring the effects of a medical condition and its treatment into the workplace and expect the Federal employer to adjust their hours and their work accordingly.

Also high on a manager’s radar scope are family care and the time these issues take away from work. Child care and elder care concerns, in large measure, drove the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). As our society’s view of roles and responsibilities changes, the Federal workplace is often looked to as a model for the rest of the country. Being out front has its benefits but serving as a testing ground has its disadvantages. Federal supervisors and managers know this very well.

Managers are increasingly concerned with claims of discrimination based on a perceived or real employee “disability”. These cases are frequently complex and involve decisions that rely on the knowledge of others.

So how to we make sense out of all of these rules and requirements?

The only way to get these matters straight is to segment the issues by type. Workers compensation is a unique area and almost entirely out of management’s control. What we can address are issues such as the following wherein the Agency has choices in approaching them.

  • Sick, annual leave and leave without pay for non-job-related illness or injury
  • Perceived or actual leave abuse arising from a claimed medical condition
  • FMLA, its benefits to employees and constraints on managers
  • Temporary job modifications where injuries or illnesses have a specific duration
  • Permanent job modifications driven by the Rehabilitation Act
  • Requesting medical information from physicians
  • Working with employees who have chronic conditions
  • What happens when an employee’s medical problems cannot be accommodated

Where do you start?

A good place to start is becoming familiar, in fact, very familiar with the rules governing the use of leave for medical reasons and related topics. Below is a list of websites to start with. Take some time with these as there are links on most of them that will get you where you want to go. We’ll be looking at these issues in articles to follow.

  • OPM’s Leave Administration webpage
  • The Federal Aviation Administration has an easily navigated site on attendance and leave
  • OPM’s Employee Relations webpage on reasonable accommodation
  • EEOC Policy Guidance On Reasonable Accommodation. This is dry and bureaucratic but well worth a look.
  • Also worth a look is the Code of Federal Regulations (No Kidding!). This is a bible on what constitutes management’s authority and limitations regarding medical issues. What you’ll find out is that managers not physicians make decisions on the effect of medical conditions on employability.

What’s next?

In the coming weeks, we plan to offer a series of articles on a wide variety of issues related to employee health problems and their effect on the job including how managers can go about getting the medical information they need to make decisions, how to respond to sick leave requests covered and not covered by FMLA, dealing with suspected sick leave abuse, accommodating real problems and the like. Stay tuned.

As always, any opinions expressed above are mine and mine alone unless you agree with them and then they are ours together. Got it?

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.