Q: Last summer I became very ill with COVID-19. I was a few months into a new dream job at a global company that emphasizes a progressive culture. After I was diagnosed, I continued to work from home until I became unable. I was hospitalized, spending a week in a medically induced coma and two weeks in the ICU.
Less than two weeks after my hospital stay, I received the doctor’s approval to return to work. On my first day back, my manager called me into his office and explained that my absence was “very bad timing” and my leadership role within the team had “come to an end.” I was also told to “act like an intern” and that my advancement within the company was “off the table.” I have over 15 years of leadership experience and an MBA from a top university, and there was no hint that I wasn’t excelling in my new role before my illness.
Hoping to win back my manager’s trust, I’ve kept my head down, executed my work and gone above and beyond what’s asked of me for the past several months. My manager insults, berates, humiliates and criticizes me at every turn.
I love my job but loathe going to work. I hesitate to quit and lose my insurance. Is there any advice on how to deal with this situation, or is it time to meet with HR and move on?
A: Judging by other letters I’ve received, yours isn’t the only employer contending with the challenges of reintegrating workers returning from COVID-related leave. But it is a prime example of how not to handle those challenges.
I want to believe that by “bad timing,” your boss merely meant your illness occurred at a time that was especially unfortunate for the business as well as for you — not that you personally exercised bad judgment in getting sick. But assuming your account is accurate, the only reasonable interpretation is that you’re being punished for taking time off to survive a virus that is on the verge of killing 1 million people in the United States.
The Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to be treated for and recover from a serious health condition that renders them unable to work. And as discussed in a previous column, workers returning from FMLA leave must be restored to a position that is the same as or equivalent to the job they held before.
Unfortunately, FMLA applies only to employees who have been at the employer at least one year, so you don’t have that protection. But other laws — such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, state and local leave and disability laws, and new laws enacted specifically to protect COVID victims — may come into play, according to Amy Epstein Gluck, employment law partner with FisherBroyles.
My layperson’s guess is that your employer knows all this and has assigned you a degrading position with no future, hoping it will encourage you to leave voluntarily.
But you have options other than submitting to abuse or slinking off into the night. An employment lawyer can determine what non-FMLA protections you’re entitled to and possibly help you negotiate a good severance package to carry you through your next job search. Check your state’s bar association or visit the National Employment Lawyers Association to find a lawyer and schedule a consultation.
To be fair, I have to believe most employers are more humane than yours and are trying to do right by their returning workers. The pandemic has left a lot of business owners struggling with severe workforce losses — some due to COVID, some to the “Great Resignation” — requiring them to change their operational structures or make painful cuts.
For some workers returning from COVID-related leave, their old jobs may have changed significantly or may no longer exist. Workers suffering from mental and physical aftereffects and long-haul COVID may now need accommodations that are difficult to implement given their employers’ reduced resources.
In addition to considering the laws mentioned above, says Epstein Gluck, employers should “be consistent, follow reasonable accommodation, request appropriate documentation and engage in an interactive process” with employees to determine what their condition is, what their challenges and capabilities are, and what accommodations might allow them to perform their jobs. Everyone’s anxious for economic recovery — but human recovery is a vital part of that goal.