Ask a Disability Attorney: Disabilities and Attendance Bonuses

Question for a disability attorney from a Gold Star Law Client:

An employee needs an accommodation in the form of a work week limited to 40 hours due to health issues.  The company has a bonus for employees who work all hours they are asked to work.  Employees who take time off, leave early, or miss any hours worked for any reason do not get the bonus.  Can the company refuse to pay the bonus to the employee who cannot work all hours asked due to medical restrictions?

That’s a great question.  The short answer is probably yes– an employer can refuse to give a bonus that is designated for people working extra hours to someone who works limited hours due to a disability.

There is not a ton of legal authority to answer your question directly- the most similar cases have been about the Family and Medical Leave Act, but other cases have held that the standard for disability-related absence issues is similar to the standard for medical leave.

First, I am assuming that the “health issues” you describe would constitute a disability for purposes of answering your question, but that may not be true.  If this is a temporary health concern or something that does not limit a major life activity, it is not a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act and there is even less protection for the employee.

Second, I am assuming that the “bonus” you mentioned can truly be classified as a bonus.  This means it is some extra benefit for employees, not something that is expected or assumed or required as a part of an employee’s earnings.  The fact that non-disabled employees who call off, leave early, etc. also don’t get the bonus makes it seem like this can properly be called a bonus.

So generally, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, and employers cannot discriminate against an employee due to a disability.  This would mean they cannot fire, demote, cut the pay of, or otherwise take a negative action against an employee due to a disability.  However, employers are generally not required to provide bonuses based on a non-discriminatory bonus plan to disabled employees who have not met the criteria, as long as all employees who do not meet the criteria also do not receive the bonus.

For example, assume a company has a sales number that they want employees to meet, and every employee who hits that number gets a bonus.  An employee misses a month of work due to a disability-related leave. Because the employee was off for that month, the employee does not meet the sales goal.  The company does not have the pay the bonus to the employee.    However, if that company has another employee who took time off work for a vacation or something else non-disability or medically related, and that employee did not meet the sales goal, the company could NOT decide that that employee probably would have hit the goal without the vacation and pay the bonus anyway.  If that happened, the employee who took the medical leave would be treated worse than someone who took a non-medical leave, and it would be discriminatory.

So, in your situation, the disabled employee would be entitled to the same bonus as anyone else who works just 40 hours a week for any other reason.  If someone else limits their schedule to 40 hours a week to go to school at night, care for their children, etc., and still gets the bonus, then the disabled employee should get it too.  However, as long as everyone who does not work all asked hours does not get the bonus, the failure to pay the bonus to the disabled employee is legal.

I would point out, even though it’s not in your question, that the company could not fire, demote, or take any other negative action against the disabled employee due to the disability.  While it is OK to not pay the bonus (as long as the same criteria apply to everyone), the company cannot later use the limitation of 40 hours a week as justification to discriminate against the employee.

If you have any questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act or any other employment or personal injury law issue, please contact Gold Star Law.