llness and Absenteeism.com - May 2012 Newsletter
In this edition you will find...
This article summarizes the general arbitral law regarding an employer’s entitlement to insist on the provision of medical evidence to support a claim of illness.
Non-unionized employees are subject to the terms of a written or oral individual contract of employment (as distinct from the terms of a collective agreement). Their contract, which is generally subject to common law principles, may or may not incorporate relevant aspects of their employer’s illness or absenteeism policies. As with unionized employees, they are protected by human rights legislation and in most instances, some form of privacy legislation. Although the common law has not developed to the same extent as the arbitral law, a prudent employer should treat unionized and non-unionized employees in a similar fashion when it comes to requiring them to provide what would normally be considered to be confidential medical information.
Unless otherwise modified by the terms of a collective agreement, a unionized employee who claims to have been ill bears the onus of establishing that her absence was justified. This normally will require more than a simple assertion of illness; for corroboration is generally required to justify an absence alleged to be attributable to illness.
The nature of the corroborative evidence may depend on the underlying circumstances and the length of the employee’s absence. It may also depend on other factors such as the employee’s pattern of absences, or in some cases, the need may be reinforced by conditions the employer reasonably imposed to address continuing issues arising from the employee’s absenteeism.
While arbitrators have for the most part accepted that corroboration is generally required, they have recognized that it may not always be available, and that circumstances may render it unreasonable to expect that the employee would have sought medical corroboration of her illness. In these instances, the arbitrator must adjudicate the claim by determining whether some form of corroborative evidence could or should have been obtained. The employee’s uncorroborated assertion of illness will then be evaluated in the context of her overall history and the credibility of her testimony. In the final analysis, the arbitrator will determine whether the employee’s bare assertion of illness was, in the circumstances, and on a balance of probabilities, sufficient to establish that she was ill on the dates in question.
It has generally been accepted that employees have a right, or at least an expectation, to privacy. The right or expectation is not absolute but must be balanced with the employer’s need to know. This balancing requirement is most often addressed by considering the degree of privacy incursion that was reasonable in the circumstances. The scope of the information that is required may differ depending on the nature of the issue being addressed.
Even in the absence of an entitlement in a collective agreement, an employer may require an employee to produce a medical certificate or other medical documentation where such is reasonably necessary. The source of this entitlement usually is considered to be either an inherent right of management or an implied term of the collective agreement.
Absent some form of reasonable suspicion regarding the legitimacy of an employee’s absence, the right to require proof of illness may be impacted by the provisions of the collective agreement. For instance, a collective agreement limitation addressing the need to provide medical evidence after an absence of three days would normally restrict the employer’s right to require proof for periods of less than three days. An established employer practice may also have a similar impact. Nevertheless, those limitations will not prevail when the employer has a reasonable basis to question the legitimacy of the employee’s absence.
Again, these general propositions are qualified by the purpose for which the information is sought. A collective agreement limitation addressing proof of illness is unlikely to prevail where the information is reasonably sought for some other purpose. Those other purposes might include a requirement to address entirely distinct issues such as fitness to return to work, accommodation, and prognosis for regular ongoing attendance.
In the case of illness, an employer generally has the right to compel the production of sufficient information to determine if the employee’s absence was justifiable. In instances involving sick leave and sick pay, this may include routine information as to the nature of the illness or disability (but not normally the diagnosis), the prognosis, if any, and the length of the employee’s absence.
The classic statement of the employer’s entitlement was set forth in a 1990 arbitral award:
In the context of the benefits of sick leave and sick pay, an employer is entitled to require the employee to provide sufficient information to permit it to satisfy itself that a particular absence was for a bona fide sickness or disability. How searching that inquiry can become is a function of the particular facts. The inquiry must be reasonable. Where sick leave and sick pay are addressed in the collective agreement, the inquiry must be in accordance with the provisions of the collective agreement.
The arbitrator stated that in the context of the collective agreement at issue
[The employer] is entitled to require all employees to provide particulars of each absence attributed to illness or disability. Whether the information which is provided will be sufficient will depend on the particular facts. Certainly there can be no objection to routine information as to the nature of the illness or disability, the prognosis, if any, and the expected date of return of the employee. Generally, the employer is entitled to require all the information necessary to equip management to determine whether the illness or absenteeism is bona fide and what impact it will have on the attendance of the employee.
These statements have generally been accepted by other arbitrators as a proper statement of the law.
More recently, a respected arbitrator summarized the arbitral law in the following terms:
In accordance with the authorities, the employer is entitled to information appropriately identifying the employee and indicating when he or she was seen by the doctor in relation to the particular illness for which the benefits are being claimed. The employer is not, again in accordance with the authorities, entitled to a diagnosis in order to qualify for benefits unless the collective agreement or an applicable statute otherwise provides. The employer is only entitled to information about the specific absence for which benefits are being claimed and that information is to be provided by the doctor who examined the employee and who is substantiating the legitimacy of the illness. The employer is entitled to know when the employee is expected to return to work and what, if any, restrictions apply upon his or her return
… In some situations, determined by an objective and reasonable assessment of individual cases, the employer may be entitled to further information. Follow-up requests for further medical information is not prohibited; indeed, in some cases, it will be necessary and entirely justified. Quite clearly, there is a continuum of appropriate medical information in which the obligation to provide more detailed medical information will increase, for example, as absences increase.
Despite a recent decision that suggested otherwise, the “mere fact that providing the reason (i.e. the nature of her illness or injury) will reveal otherwise confidential medical information does not excuse the employee from providing the reason in order to satisfy the onus on her to justify her absence and claim for benefits even in the first instance.”
An employer can, where appropriate, challenge the sufficiency of an employee-tendered medical certificate. Similarly, it can also refuse to honour an employee’s claim for sick leave where the claim has not been properly supported by medical evidence. What the employer cannot do, except in very limited circumstances, is to discipline an employee for having failed to provide the requested medical information. Where an employee fails to comply with a reasonable request, she might suffer an adverse financial or non-monetary impact. This might include loss of income-protection benefits or a justifiable refusal to permit the employee to continue at, or return to work, following an injury.
The June edition of this newsletter will expand upon the foregoing. Included will be commentary addressing
A discussion of the arbitral law supporting all of the propositions discussed in this and other editions of the newsletter can be found in the subscriber manual and the monthly subscriber manual updates.
Expanded case summaries of the following decisions of interest are available on line to subscribers of Illness and Absenteeism: A Manual for Human Resource Personnel, Union Representatives and Labour Relations Practitioners.