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Worker going on leave? React with poker face

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It may be natural for supervisors to be upset when one of their key employees goes out on workers’ compensation or FMLA leave, but make sure managers know not to lash out.

Both the ADA and California law say that employees who are hurt at work and need recovery time and accommodations once they return may very well also be considered disabled. Any management hostility can therefore translate into a hostile work environment based on disability. And that may mean a lost lawsuit, a damage award and an order to pay the worker’s attorneys’ fees.

Recent case: Beverly worked in the HR department at the San Francisco Housing Authority and was eventually promoted to workers’ compensation analyst. One day at work, she tripped on a cord and injured her right knee. She had surgery and returned to work with restrictions on standing, walking and lifting.

After returning to work, she began to experience pain in her left knee. Her doctors attributed this to favoring the right knee and requested she be placed on light-duty assignment to avoid further damage from walking and lifting. She was placed on workers’ comp.

Meanwhile, the employer decided to downsize the HR office and cut employees, including Beverly. She sued, alleging, among other claims, a hostile work environment.

As proof, Beverly cited her supervisor’s comment that most workers’ compensation leave claims were fraudulent. She said her boss asked this question at a staff meeting, “How can the workers’ comp person be out on workers’ comp?” And he publicly asked other employees why Beverly was walking on crutches instead of using a cane.

The jury agreed that Beverly had worked in a hostile environment and awarded her money for pain and suffering, plus over $78,000 in legal fees. (Myres v. San Francisco Housing Authority, No. 141107, Court of Appeal of California 2015)

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