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Can You Get Fired For Being Sick?

Posted by Kathy Harrington-Sullivan | Nov 16, 2020 | 0 Comments

Did you know that your employer can fire you for virtually any reason? 

Most employees who are terminated immediately seek answers as to why they are being fired. However, since Georgia is an at-will employment state, employers do not need to provide a reason. And even if they do provide a reason, most any reason is sufficient, as long as it's not a reason prohibited by law.

This might seem unfair. But it's not necessarily illegal. 

In theory, it works both ways: Employees can quit whenever they want, with or without a reason. Since employers tend to hold the power -- usually workers need an income more than the employer needs a specific worker -- it generally gives employers the edge. 

Illegal termination

There are illegal reasons to fire people, even in an at-will state. Federal law provides protection for a number of protected classes, and employers can be held liable for violating someone's legal rights. Examples of protected classes include:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity

An employer cannot hide behind the at-will employment laws if there is evidence that they fired a minority worker because of a protected characteristic like race, for instance. Likewise, an employer is likely to have great difficulty defending the termination of all female workers to allow for their replacement with all-male staff

What if you're sick?That brings us back to the original question: Can you get fired if you're sick, or is that a protected class?

The answer depends. You may be protected under a variety of laws, depending on your specific illness or the illness of certain family members. On the other hand, if you're missing too much work because you're sick, there are situations where an employer can legally fire you, for example where no legal protections apply to your situation. 

One example of potential protection for unwell employees is the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Certain diseases and disorders are protected, and employers are required to engage in an interactive process with employees about reasonable accommodations. The ADA protects disabled employees who are able to undertake gainful employment and do their essential job functions with the help of reasonable accommodations. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, may also be a source of job protection. It deals with serious illnesses, caring for new or newly adopted children, and caring for certain sick family members. You won't be protected if you're missing work with a cold, but you may be protected if you or your covered family members have a serious health condition, your employer has more than 50 employees within a 75 mile radius, and you have been employed for more than a year and have worked the requisite number of hours.

Certain states also have their own sick leave laws and regulations, which may offer additional protection in some cases. For instance, a 2017 update to Georgia laws gives workers the option to use a week of their own sick leave to care for someone else. That said, there are no mandated sick leave requirements under state law in Georgia, so any days off outside legally protected time off will be those offered by employers as a perk or a benefit. 

Were you illegally fired?

As you can see, the specific facts of an employee's situation play heavily into whether a termination is legal or not. If you believe your termination was illegal, please contact us. We may be able to help you get the compensation you deserve.  

About the Author

Kathy Harrington-Sullivan

Kathy Harrington Sullivan is a Partner at Barrett & Farahany who helps potential clients understand the law, clarify their rights, and determine which steps they can take to protect themselves and their jobs.

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