Diabetes and Workplace Rights

Living with type 2 diabetes is hard enough. But what if your disease is affecting your work, or the way that people treat you there? What kind of rights do you have in the workplace, or on the job hunt? Plenty, as it turns out. Diabetes is considered a disability if it limits at least one of your major life activities, such as eating or caring for yourself, or if it has substantially limited a major life activity in the past. If you qualify, then you’re likely protected from discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which applies to any private employer with 15 or more employees, as well as all state and local government employers. If you’re federally employed, you may also be protected under the Rehabilitation Act. And state laws may cover smaller employers or offer broader protections. Here’s a primer on your basic rights:

Diabetes shouldn’t keep you out of work.

You can’t be fired or not hired because you have diabetes, nor should you be kept from promotion. The only exception to this rule comes if you are a “direct threat” to the health or safety of yourself or others by being employed there. (Example: If frequent hypoglycemic episodes could incapacitate you while you’re operating heavy machinery.) This kind of claim would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Many people with diabetes worry that their condition will stand in the way of getting the job they want. But it's important to know that federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, protect those with conditions such as diabetes from being discriminated against in a hiring decision. In other words, you cannot be refused a job solely upon your condition. In fact, there is no legal obligation even to tell a prospective employer about your diabetes.

Once a job offer has been made, those with diabetes are subject to the same medical requirements as those without diabetes. That is, if a medical examination or medical history is required of a new employee in order to determine medical appropriateness for the work, you will be expected to comply. If questions arise about whether you can do the job safely with diabetes, you should know that your job offer cannot be withdrawn unless it is clear following an examination by a physician with expertise in treating diabetes that your diabetes would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of you or others—and that the threat cannot be ameliorated with an accommodation (a workplace modification that can be made to help you to manage your diabetes).

Your employer must make reasonable accommodations.

For many diabetics, managing their disease requires little employer adaptation. Maybe you have your own office, and you can eat when you please, and you can give yourself injections without worrying about privacy. If your workplace is less flexible, however, then it’s important to know that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires your employer to make reasonable accommodations so that you may manage your diabetes successfully while performing your job duties. According to the American Diabetes Association, some of the more common accommodations include:

  • Adequate breaks to check blood sugar, eat a snack, take medications, or use the restroom, and if requested, a private place for testing and insulin administration.
  • A safe place to rest following a hypoglycemic episode until blood sugar normalizes.
  • The ability to keep food and diabetic supplies close by.
  • Time off for treatment of diabetes, recuperation from complications related to diabetes, and education on diabetes management.
  • Consideration for a modified work schedule or a straight shift (as opposed to rotating shifts) if expected schedule interferes with diabetic management.
  • Ability to use a chair or stool or take a shortcut if you have trouble standing or walking due to diabetic neuropathy.
  • A large screen computer monitor or other assistive devices if you have visual changes due to diabetes.

While these are typical accommodations, the need for these workplace changes should be assessed on an individual basis. Most often, accommodations cost little or no expense to your employer and cause little or no disruption in the workplace.

The only exception: If granting a reasonable accommodation would be an undue hardship, causing considerable problems or expense, an employer doesn’t have to make it happen. But even in that event, an employer is required to try to come up with a workable compromise.

You don’t have to disclose your disease.

There is typically no requirement to tell your employer (or a potential employer) that you have type 2 diabetes, but you will only be protected via anti-discrimination laws if your employer knows you have the disease.

You can take medical leave.

Ever heard of the Family and Medical Leave Act? It applies to you. If a company has more than 50 employees (or if it’s a government employer), the FMLA requires that it allow up to 12 weeks of leave annually due to a serious health condition—yours or an immediate family member’s. You can also take that leave in chunks, should short-term issues arise.

Some jobs are off limits.

If you treat your diabetes with insulin, you won’t be able to do some things. For instance, pilots can attain FAA third-class airman medical certification, but they can’t attain first class certification (to fly large commercial planes). And you may be restricted within the military, depending on the branch, your duties, and what’s involved in your diabetes management. Entry into other specific fields, such as fire fighting, commercial driving, and police work, may require you to meet specific guidelines in order to qualify.

There’s a lot of information out there. If you’ve got questions, a variety of agencies have answers:

Questions and Answers About Diabetes in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)

Employment Discrimination (American Diabetes Association)

Diabetes and Employment (American Diabetes Association)

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (American Diabetes Association)

Taking Responsibility

It’s up to you to ensure your work success by managing your diabetes properly. Talk to your doctor about how to manage your diet, exercise, medication and self-monitoring while at work, especially if you work a rotating shift or long hours.

The best tip is good planning. Always bring your diabetic supplies, planned and extra snacks, and a small notebook to work so that you can monitor, document, and correct your blood sugar and have a written record of glucose patterns for your doctor to use in adjusting your medications as needed. If you plan well and try to do the things you were told to do when you first discovered you had diabetes—eat regularly, get consistent exercise and sleep and check your blood sugar at certain times—you're more likely to have success on the job.