Diabetes On The Clock

Diabetic discrimination at the workplace: What you can do

Take a moment to imagine this:

You’ve worked for your employer for several years. It’s a great job and you love the environment. You have just been diagnosed with diabetes. Suddenly, your entire lifestyle has to change. You must take new medications, alter your eating habits, and increase your physical activity. In addition to adjusting to these changes at home, you will also have to adjust to them at your workplace as an employee with diabetes.

During your work hours, you need to monitor your blood sugar twice, have snacks handy, and find creative ways to incorporate physical activity. In addition, you will need to locate a discrete area at your workplace where you can take insulin and other medications.

However, when you tell your immediate manager about your medical condition and accommodations that you request, the manager is nonchalant and doesn’t seem to care. The manager feels that you’re making too much of your condition, and believes that it would be unfair to give you “special preference” over all of the other workers.

This is an example of workplace discrimination based on chronic illness. It’s more common than we realize, especially when it’s a non-visible condition like diabetes. The awareness of diabetes among employers is still relatively low, even though it is one of the fastest growing chronic diseases in the US and worldwide.

Employees with diabetes working in the United States have Federal and State rights. A federal anti-discrimination law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, covers employers and unions with 15 or more employees. It protects people with disabilities from unfair employment practices. An employer may not treat you differently based on the fact that you have diabetes in hiring, firing, discipline, pay, promotion, job training and fringe benefits. You must be a “qualified individual with a disability.” Diabetes has been characterized as a disability due to its detrimental effect on the endocrine system, which regulates bodily functions.

Many states have their own laws against disability discrimination. These laws and the state agencies that enforce them may give employees extra protection and may apply to smaller employers as well.

Providing reasonable accommodations is the way employers can ensure people with disabilities do their jobs and are treated fairly. The majority of people with diabetes only need to make small changes that cost little or nothing.

Asking for accommodations is employee’s responsibility. While not entirely required, it is best to submit a written request for accommodation that explains why diabetes is a disability; specifies the accommodations required; and how the accommodations will enable the employee to carry out job duties effectively. This should be given to the human resources department along with a letter from the physician confirming the request.

There are a number of reasonable accommodations that may be provided. Here are some examples.

• Breaks for blood glucose testing, eating snacks, taking medicine, and going to the bathroom

• Keeping diabetes supplies and food close by 

• Leaving for treatment, recovery, or training on managing diabetes

• An alternative work schedule or a standard shift instead of rotating shifts

• People with diabetic neuropathy (a nerve disorder caused by diabetes), for access to a chair or stool;

• People with diabetic retinopathy (a vision disorder caused by diabetes), for access to large-screen computer monitors or other assistive devices

Eligible employees can also take can advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employees with serious health conditions, most private employers with more than 50 employees, and most government employers, must provide a minimum of 12 weeks of leave per year. You can take this leave in small time chunks to attend to short term problems, for example, managing blood glucose levels or to attend doctor’s appointments.

If an employer refuses to accommodate reasonable accommodation requests, conducts illegal medical inquiries or undergo an illegal medical examination, employees are encouraged to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The American Diabetes Association and the Chronic Disease Coalition are two organizations dedicated to assist employees experiencing workplace discrimination due to diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association has created an entire section on workplace discrimination and provides resources for employees and employers.

The Chronic Disease Coalition is a strong advocate for rights for individuals diagnosed with chronic illness. Chronic Disease Coalition Ambassadors have published several stories related to workplace discrimination and has a section that keeps people updated on current legislative efforts.

The fact that we live with an invisible illness does not mean we are not struggling and that we are not exasperating our condition. We remain hardworking, dedicated workers capable of performing our jobs. In order that we can effectively do our jobs and provide for ourselves and our families, we need to be treated with dignity and to be provided with the accommodations we need.

It’s just that simple.

Until Next Time,

The Genetic Diabetic

American Diabetes Association Employment Discrimination: https://www.diabetes.org/resources/know-your-rights/discrimination/employment-discrimination

Chronic Disease Coalition: https://chronicdiseasecoalition.org/