Disability leave is any paid or unpaid leave that employees may take under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires companies to provide “reasonable accommodation” for employees who suffer from a disability, whether that’s a short-term illness, a chronic condition, or a lifelong disability. Reasonable accommodation may include time off of work for recovery or treatment, which is commonly referred to as disability leave.

When Does Disability Leave Apply?

The ADA applies to all businesses with 15 or more employees, as well as to all state and local government agencies.

Disability leave is an accommodation under the ADA that can apply any time an employee needs to take time off of work due to a disability. The ADA defines a disability as any physical or mental condition that substantially limits an employee’s ability to walk, speak, see, hear, or take care of themselves. A disability may be short-term, long-term, or permanent. It can be caused by an illness or injury, or be a pre-existing condition.

Many employers choose to take employees at their word if they request disability leave, as many disabilities are not readily apparent, and employees often need support when dealing with a disability. However, employers do have the option to request a doctor’s note or other evidence to support an employee’s claim of disability and time off as an appropriate accommodation.

While employers are required to offer accommodations under the ADA, they are only required to do so if the accommodations do not cause undue hardship to the business. If an employee requests a significant length of disability leave that impacts a business’s ability to function, the business may choose to decline or modify the leave.

Notably, disability leave applies in the event of a workplace injury or accident. Disabilities resulting from workplace incidents are also covered under laws related to workers’ compensation. In this case, employers may not be able to decline or modify the leave request.

Is Disability Leave Paid?

In most cases, disability leave claimed under the ADA is not required to be paid. However, there are some cases in which pay is required, and many employers choose to offer some amount of paid disability leave.

If an employee requests disability leave due to illness or injury unrelated to the workplace, the leave does not have to be paid. Many companies choose to offer a number of days of paid sick leave as a benefit, which employees can opt to use while on disability leave. Companies can also choose to allow employees to donate their unused paid sick leave to colleagues who have used up all of their paid sick leave.

If an employee requests disability leave due to a workplace injury, that leave will typically be paid through workers’ compensation.

Some employers offer short-term disability insurance as a benefit for employees. In this case, an employee may qualify for some amount of pay through the disability insurance policy. The amount and duration of pay varies by policy.

Several states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii, require employers to offer disability insurance. In most states, employees who are not covered by employer-sponsored disability insurance plans may also purchase their own short-term disability policies from third-party insurers.

Disability Leave vs. FMLA Leave

Disability leave under the ADA and family and medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are broadly similar. Both provide mechanisms for employees to request leave from work while their jobs are protected, and neither require employers to pay for employees’ leave.

However, there are several important differences between disability leave and FMLA leave.

First, disability leave applies for any disability, while FMLA leave only covers certain conditions and situations. FMLA leave applies only in the case of serious health conditions (including those that require an overnight hospital stay), pregnancy, adoption, or military leave.

Second, providing disability leave is only required as long as it does not cause undue hardship to the business. Employers may decline or modify a leave request if it has a material impact on their business. FMLA leave provides up to 12 weeks of protected annual leave, and leave requested under the FMLA cannot be declined or modified.

The FMLA applies to all companies with 50 or more employees. To qualify for FMLA leave, employees must have been employed at a company for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the past 12 months.

Implementing Disability Leave

Disability leave must be documented in the same way as any other accommodation provided under the ADA. Here’s how the process works:

Step 1: The Employee Submits a Leave Request

The process for requesting leave should be documented in your employee handbook or otherwise communicated to employees. Typically, employees who need disability leave should contact their HR representative to initiate a request for leave.

Step 2: The Employee and Employer Decide on Appropriate Leave

Employees and employers must work together to determine what length of disability leave is appropriate. The employee may be required to provide a doctor’s note documenting how the requested leave will help them recover. The employer must determine whether the requested leave will cause undue hardship on the business and, if so, suggest a modification.

Step 3: Documentation

Once a leave request is approved, it should be documented in an employee’s file. Thorough documentation is important to demonstrate that a company complied with all ADA requirements in case of a legal dispute in the future.

Disability Leave Examples

To better understand when disability leave applies and how it works, here are three examples of disability leave in practice:

Example 1: An employee suffers a broken leg in an incident outside of work and must be in a leg brace for 90 days, plus go to physical therapy once per week. The employee may request several days of disability leave in the days after the incident while they learn to walk with a crutch, plus an additional half day of leave per week for physical therapy

Since they work at a desk and are able to travel to and from work, the employee is still able to fulfill their job duties. The employer decides that the requested leave will not cause undue hardship and grants the leave.

Example 2: An employee whose job involves heavy lifting and walking wakes up with a flu, feeling lethargic and weak. Since they do not have any sick days remaining, they request disability leave for the duration of their illness, which is expected to last a few days. The employer decides that this will not cause an undue hardship and grants the leave. The employee returns to work three days later when feeling better.

Example 3: An employee suffers from a mental illness such as chronic depression and wants to visit a therapy group one day every other month. Rather than use sick days, the employee requests one day of disability leave every other month for these therapy sessions. Since the sessions are scheduled ahead of time and are infrequent, the employer decides that the requested leave will not cause undue hardship and grants the leave.

Conclusion

Disability leave is any leave requested under the ADA. Employers with 15 or more employees are required by the ADA to provide reasonable leave as long as it does not cause undue hardship for the business. Disability leave is not required to be paid, but may be paid if an employee opts to use paid sick leave or has short-term disability insurance.