Why Do I Need to Justify My Health to My Employers?
Let’s be honest here — nobody’s dream is to work at a low-paying cashier job. But for many of us, it’s what we have to do. And despite a bladder disorder that makes it hard for me to stay in one place without breaks and a general dislike of human interaction, that’s where I found myself.
At my former place of employment, we were all permitted one 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks throughout our shift — more generous than many other corporations, for sure, but not enough to be adequate for my needs. So I politely asked my manager for more breaks. I was surprised to hear an uncomfortable ‘you’re going to have to talk to HR’. But it wasn’t my manager’s fault that she didn’t have the authority to give me permission — so I made a trip up to the HR office.
I’m not going to lie, I don’t like telling people I need ‘extra bathroom breaks’ — it gets to feel a little infantilizing. But it had to be done, so again, I explained to her that going too long without using the bathroom causes me extreme pain and makes it impossible for me to perform basic job functions. This time, the answer was a yes — but with terms and conditions. I had to provide a current doctor’s note stating that due to my condition, my employers needed to provide me with extra (unpaid) breaks. I had recently moved from out of state — I had no healthcare provider, no insurance, and not nearly enough money to pay for a visit out of pocket.
I mentioned my concerns to a coworker and discovered that she was encountering similar problems. Due to a preexisting medical condition, she couldn’t retrieve carts for long periods of time, at least in the winter — she was sensitive to the cold, and was prone to blacking out or numbness if she tried to endure it too long. However, she got the same response from HR — that she was required to continue this activity she’d acknowledged was dangerous for her unless she could provide a doctor’s note as evidence. She was also from out of state, and we were both making barely over ten dollars an hour. Why was it up to her to prove herself, and not on her employers to trust her?
As it turns out, this is pretty much a universal experience for those with disabilities or medical conditions working for large corporations that require you to be on your feet or do physically challenging work. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer can seek documentation of a disability that an employee wants accommodation for— and they have the right to deny a request for accommodation if they don’t feel that there’s sufficient “evidence” to back it up. The condition I live with is legally considered a disability, but without proof to show it, there were no accommodations forthcoming.
I understand the concept behind the idea. Corporations don’t want to be exploited by employees claiming they have disabilities when they’re really able-bodied. But on the other hand, is it fair to make us bring in doctors’ notes like children? Can’t we be trusted as the adults we are, to make decisions about what is safe for us?
At the very least, a courtesy period should be implemented where workers are given time to obtain documentation of their disorder — while receiving the accommodations they need. I simply started taking my own bathroom breaks without permission — and getting reprimanded in return. (Keep in mind, this was immediately after my discussion with HR — I had not had enough time to get proof.) Each time, I explained the situation and that I wasn’t trying to maximize my breaks, I had a medical condition — and each time, I was ignored. Unsurprisingly, I quit soon after. If companies want to keep workers with medical conditions, they need to truly be willing to accommodate — without judgement.
At my new job, I was upfront about my condition right away — in fact, during the interview. I didn’t want to end up in another situation where I had to choose between my job and my health. And to my surprise? They were completely accommodating. I can take breaks when I need, as can my coworker when he needs to readjust his hearing aids; and it’s okay to take a sick day on occasion if you have a pre-existing condition that is having a flare-up. I was almost shocked by this treatment — but in reality, this is the way things should be.
At my old job, I lasted two weeks before throwing in the towel. At my new, accommodating job, I’ve been employed for six months and counting. If employers wish to retain their workers, asking them to be in pain or hurt themselves isn’t the way to do it.