Why do I have to tell them that?

A frequent issue for people who call in to Gold Star Law is employers asking for information that employees do not want to share.  The most common type of information sought is medical information, but there are many scenarios people have called us about where their employers are asking questions and employees feel they have no obligation to answer.  What can your employer ask you, and when can you say no?

In general, if you are asking for some kind of accommodation, concession, or time off from work, your employer has a right to know why.  If you tell your employer that you have a disability and need a reasonable accommodation to perform your job, your employer has a right to know what your disability is and what your restrictions are.  If you are requesting time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act or some other sick leave policy, your employer has a right to confirm that the time off is being used for a qualifying reason.  However, these rights are not without limitation.  An employer is entitled to request enough information to confirm the validity of the request and respond appropriately, but the employer does not have carte blanche to access your entire medical history.

For example, let’s assume that an employee has been diagnosed with depression, PTSD, and anxiety, and that employee’s doctor has said that the employee should be allowed to take up to three days off per month and should work in an area with natural light.  If the employee just goes to the employer and says “I need time off and natural light,” with no explanation or supporting documentation, the employer can say no.  An employer has no obligation to accommodate an unknown disability or to grant an unrequested medical leave.  In order to get an accommodation, the employee will need to disclose, at a minimum, what the disability is and what the employee’s restrictions are.  The employee will need to provide a note from the doctor that states that the employee has depression, PTSD, and anxiety, but does not need to reveal the cause of the PTSD or anything that specific.  To get an accommodation, the employee will also need to provide medical support showing what the employee’s restrictions are.  An employer does not need to provide the exact accommodation an employee requests.  An employer may see an employee’s actual restrictions and come up with an alternative accommodation that works within the employee’s given limitations.  For a request for time off, such as an FMLA request, the employer has a right to know what the time off is for (since only certain reasons are considered “qualifying” for purposes of FMLA leave), how often it will happen, and confirmation that the employee is unable to work during that time.

Some employees are not comfortable providing any medical information, no matter how general.  Your employer cannot FORCE you to provide the information, but the employer is not required to grant your request(s) without it.  If you are not prepared to tell your employer why you need leave or an accommodation, be prepared for your employer to say “no.”

Apart from medical information, employers generally may ask for information relating to other employee requests for time off or other employment-related requests.  For example, if you say you want to take a certain day off for personal reasons, it is not illegal for your employer to ask why.  If you refuse to give a reason it is also not illegal for your employer to say “no,” as there is no general requirement to give time off for undisclosed reasons. The same is true about requesting a schedule change, a change in work assignment, or any other request of your employer.

If you have a question about this or any other employment law concern, call Gold Star Law.