What Tiger Woods’s Foot Can Teach Employers About Managing Employees’ Medical Conditions

Golfing icon Tiger Woods had to withdraw from the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, last week due to a painful foot condition called plantar fasciitis, which causes a stabbing pain in the heel or foot. Video footage shows Woods limping during his third round of play after reaggravating the condition while competing in the tournament.

Employee medical leave

Of course, Woods was able to withdraw from the Masters tournament to aid in his recovery without having to ask anyone for time off. But what if it were the greenskeeper or a caddie employed by the golf course whose plantar fasciitis acted up? 

But what if it was the greenskeeper or a caddie employed by the golf course whose plantar fasciitis acted up? 

A Closer Look at Medical Leave Entitlements

Any time an employer is faced with an employee who needs time off for medical reasons, the employer must evaluate the employee’s entitlement to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as any comparable state laws. 

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA is a federal law designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. The FMLA, which applies to all employers with 50 or more employees, requires employers to provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for the birth and care of a newborn child; for placement of a child for adoption or foster care with the employee; to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition. Employees are eligible to take FMLA leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months or at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The ADA requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. In general, an accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Reasonable accommodations may include making facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; reassignment to a vacant position; or providing an employee with time off work.

Crucial to Comply

I have personally struggled with plantar fasciitis, and it’s no laughing matter. Although the degree of pain may vary, the condition is likely to qualify as a disability if it substantially impairs a major life activity. (And walking certainly counts as a major life activity.) Likewise, the condition could qualify as a serious health condition to the extent it requires continuing treatment by a healthcare provider (podiatrists, anyone?). No matter what an employee’s condition is or how minor it may seem, if there’s any chance the condition might meet the definition of a serious health condition under the FMLA or a disability under the ADA, it’s crucial to comply meticulously with the statutes. It’s also not a bad idea to keep your employment lawyer on speed dial because managing employee medical leave and accommodations is one of the most challenging aspects of human resources.

Putting Health and Wellness First

Although Woods’s no-pain, no-gain work ethic is admirable, I’m glad he prioritized his health and recognized he needed to withdraw from the Master’s tournament. Even when the stakes are high, employers should never pressure employees to work through the pain of a disability or serious health condition when time off work or some other accommodation is needed. Pressuring an employee to work while on FMLA leave or failing to provide an employee time off as a reasonable accommodation could set the employer up for a claim of FMLA interference or failure to accommodate under the ADA.

Best wishes to Woods for a speedy recovery!

Marilyn Moran is a partner at FordHarrison.

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