How the Law Protects People with Incontinence
Many in the incontinence community wonder how their condition might affect their employment possibilities, or if discovery of their bladder control issues could lead to loss of their job. It’s a common, anxiety-causing concern, though knowing the law can relieve the worry.
To find out more about the laws that apply to incontinence in the workplace, I consulted Sharon Vinick, attorney and partner at Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP in Oakland, California. Sharon’s firm specializes in plaintiff employment law, representing employees in disputes with their employers.
Sharon has a recent case that’s a perfect example of how the law protects people with incontinence. She shared that her firm recently represented a woman who worked at a large supermarket chain as a cashier. She was recovering from a bout with cancer and as a result, she had a weakened bladder and needed to drink water frequently throughout the day. Her H2O consumption and her accompanying bladder control issues meant she had to go to the bathroom regularly, so she asked for what’s called a “workplace accommodation.”
A workplace accommodation is one of the tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though many equivalent state laws also cover it. It means that you are entitled to go to your employer and request a reasonable accommodation that helps you manage your disability so that you can do your job.
The cashier needed frequent breaks during her assigned shifts. Unfortunately, while her employer had originally agreed to the accommodation, when there was a changeover in the store’s management team, her new supervisor wasn’t aware of this employee’s specific break requirements.
One day when she was on duty, she requested to be relieved to attend to her restroom needs. Her manager ignored her request repeatedly and she ended up having a wetting accident at her register. She was mortified and suffered a stress breakdown as a result, causing her to take a medical leave.
When she attempted to return to her job, the company refused to bring her back. While they eventually did allow her to return, they then refused to accommodate her need for frequent breaks. Sharon’s firm took on the case, going to trial and winning a six figure settlement.
“There’s been a lot of evolution in the law over the last 20 years,” Sharon said. “It provides protection for people with all manners of disability, including incontinence. The art is in defining ‘reasonable.’”
According to Sharon, “reasonable” is situation-dependent, though some examples she gave of what would most likely be considered acceptable are:
- If you need to take a five minute break every hour to use the restroom
- If you need a standing desk because sitting aggravates your condition
- If you work on an assembly line and request to be stationed at a position that is close to the bathroom, instead of halfway across the plant
- If your incontinence is worsened by standing and you can do your job from a stool, you could request to do your job from a sitting position
- If you work in retail, you could request a register that’s close to the restrooms
However, if your condition required you to leave your job every fifteen minutes or doesn’t allow you to perform basic functions of the position, according to Sharon, that would probably not pass as “reasonable.”
An employee who needs an accommodation should request one immediately after they start work. A condition causing incontinence doesn’t have to be revealed during the hiring process or even when you’re requesting the accommodation.
“You’ll have to get your doctor involved, so it’s good to know up front that they’re going to support you in getting your accommodation,” she added. “It’s best to be proactive and discuss it with HR immediately. And don’t be ashamed to ask for it, it’s your legal right.”
Sharon also mentioned that employees shouldn’t feel pressed to disclose their condition. “Simply say ‘I have a medical condition that requires me to take breaks every 2 hours. I’d rather not disclose it, though I am happy to provide a note from my doctor.’ Then tell your doctor to be non-specific on the note, referring to ‘a medical condition.’ You’re completely protected from having to reveal the details.”
What if your employer is completely unaware of your incontinence issue and you don’t really need a special accommodation, though you’re concerned about having a wetting incident at work?
According to Sharon, you should have no worries, “For someone with incontinence, an accident like that should be considered reasonable. To fire someone for it would be completely illegal. I can’t imagine any situation where anyone could ever be terminated for it.”
While not all employers are understanding and compassionate, it’s good to know that there are laws in place that protect those with incontinence from unreasonable termination and discrimination.
What do you think? Have you ever had an issue with your employer caused by your condition? Have you ever asked for an accommodation from your work place? What happened?