Can Your Employer Ask for a Doctor’s Note If You Call out Sick?

There are many aspects of American culture that aren’t particularly laudable — and this is especially true regarding the culture of many workplaces. Unfortunately, most American employers value productivity above all else, which often results in dangerous working conditions for employees, who feel compelled to work long hours without sleep or healthy meals. Eventually, workers become sick, either as a result of their overwork or otherwise, and need to take time off.

Yet, it is a common practice in some workplaces for employees who utilize sick days to submit proof of their illness. Is this a legal practice, or can you refuse to supply your employer with a doctor’s note? Read on to find out.

What HIPAA Says

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 is a federal law that was created to protect patients from the disclosure of their health information without their knowledge or consent. This means that healthcare providers, like your doctor and your insurer, cannot release protected health information to anyone other than you, unless you expressly give them permission to do so. As a result, your employer won’t get anything from asking your healthcare provider directly for a doctor’s note or information on your health.

HIPAA does not prevent you from requesting information about your own health or disclosing information about your health to others. Thus, if your employer asks you directly for details about the illness causing you to miss work, HIPAA doesn’t protect you from your own disclosures. In fact, within HIPAA’s Privacy Rule, the law states that employers are allowed to ask employees for a doctor’s note and other health information for the purpose of “sick leave, workers’ compensation, wellness programs or health insurance.”

What the ADA Says

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law passed at the federal level to prohibit various types of discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which makes sure that employers are providing reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities, which include modifications to equipment, improving workplace accessibility and offering flexible scheduling.

Most notably, the ADA prevents employers from asking employees about the nature or severity of their disabilities or to endure a medical examination before offering a job. Yet, employers can request that hired employees undergo a medical examination — though they cannot use the information gained in the examination to affect employment in any way. What’s more, the ADA sees an employer’s request for a doctor’s note as a reasonable and lawful one, which is a ruling upheld by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

What the FMLA Says

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 is a federal labor law designed to ensure that workers can better balance their job responsibilities with their family and home life. It guarantees that workers can take up to 12 weeks of leave within a 12-month period to care for a new child or ailing family member or to manage a serious health condition.

On the issue of doctor’s notes, the FMLA states that employers can request medical certification from employees upon the employee’s first request for leave under the FMLA, and if the employee takes extended leave, the employer can request an additional doctor’s note only once every 30 days subsequently. However, if an employee is on intermittent FMLA leave, the employer cannot request a note every time the worker misses work; they can only ask whether an absence is related to the reason for FMLA leave.

Easier Ways to Get a Doctor’s Note

Ultimately, the answer is a resounding “Yes, employers can legally ask employees to provide doctor’s notes when they call out sick.” Fortunately, it is easy to get a doctor’s note for work if you take advantage of telehealth solutions. It is likely that your insurance plan covers telehealth appointments, and meeting with a healthcare provider through telemedicine is much faster, easier and safer than trying to get into a doctor’s office when you are too sick to work.

The next time your supervisor asks you for a doctor’s note after you call in sick, you know how the law protects you, your job and your health information. However, if you do suspect that your employer is mishandling information about employee health, you should contact an attorney ASAP.