Many people do not understand all of their rights or how to use them. In my practice I spend a significant amount of time with my clients who have a disability making sure they know their rights and keep the right attitude as we go about getting what they deserve. Below are some tips for anyone who wants to obtain what the law says is rightfully theirs. Although I use the term attorney in this article, in the workplace many of these activities can also be performed by a Union Steward at little or no cost to the client.
1. Consult with an attorney sooner rather than later. As soon as you begin to notice that your disability is affecting your work, even if others may not have noticed, contact an attorney. Do not underestimate or minimize the effect your disability may have on your job performance. Many people with disabilities wait until their disability has caused their performance to suffer enough to cause a reprimand by a supervisor. If you wait too long the legal options will be limited and even extensive legal intervention may not be able to save your job. Also, do not sign any agreement or memo of understanding without consulting with an attorney.
2. Recognize that asking for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, leave under the Federal Medical Leave Act or leave under your employer’s policies is not asking your employer for a favor. These are rights you have and no one should make you feel sorry for asking for what you need to be able to perform your job while protecting your health. Every communication with your boss should reflect that you are merely requesting what you are legally entitled to have. This is not the time to whine, cuss or to appear arrogant. A level informational tone is how legal briefs are written and that is the perfect tone for your communication.
3. Attorneys are called counselors for a reason. We are allowed and encouraged to pass on non-legal advice if it will help our clients. I often make suggestions for my clients that are not legal advice but will help them to achieve their goals. I provide specific language suggestions for client’s interactions with supervisors as well as other possible avenues to explore. For example, a client may engage me to obtain accommodations. Although I will work toward the goal of obtaining these accommodations, I may ask then to consider disability retirement as a long term solution. Sometimes obtaining accommodations will still not make it possible for an individual to perform their duties, while leaving the workplace will allow them the time and place to recover their health. I also provide specific behavioral and language suggestions to help improve the work environment for the employee.
4. Having an attorney does not relieve you from working hard on your cause. You must maintain your autonomy and personal power. You ultimately must decide what legal steps your attorney will take for you. You must also have face-to-face contact with your supervisor and management, sometimes without your attorney. You will also have to obtain documents from your employer and doctor. The attorney could obtain these through legal machinations, but it is much less costly if you get them through more direct channels. For example, a patient can almost always get their records from their doctor with little or no cost.
5. You are the client, not your mother, father, spouse or significant other. Attorney’s will do whatever they can to make things right for you regardless of what these other people in your life may want. To make this work you need to figure out what you want. Do you want to keep your job at all costs? Do you want to get healthy at all costs? These are questions you must answer for yourself.
Having a attorney represent you can increase your chances for success. While it will cost you some money, attorneys will very rarely take on disability cases on contingency basis, the benefits of having an attorney will usually outweigh the costs by a significant margin. Most attorneys will allow an initial consultation at low cost to help you evaluate whether you want an attorney.
I spent many years working for the Federal government before I became an attorney. I used to think much of what an attorney did was not worth the cost. I have found out that attorneys have more information than most lay people and have a different perspective that may help in resolving issues. While many issues can be resolved without an attorney, many issues will be resolved more quickly and favorably with legal assistance. However, it is very important for the client to keep the right attitude before and while having a attorney work on their behalf.
Note: This is not legal advice. I'm not your attorney. Some of this information will vary in your state. This provides general information and a start in deciding what to tell your attorney.