Long-term disability (“LTD”) coverage is often a key benefit employees derive from their employment. LTD benefits can provide significant security to employees in the form of income continuation when they are disabled due to an illness or injury. Today we deal with some common misconceptions that employers may face when attempting to manage an employee’s absence due to disability.
Misconception #1: An Employer is not entitled to know why I am off work
Generally speaking, if an employee is taking a sick day or two, an employer is not entitled to ask for specifics, such as a diagnosis. However, when employees are off work for an extended period of time, their employers become entitled to obtain further information. Generally this may mean an employee has to provide details of their general functional abilities for the purposes of determining proper accommodation. In the extreme cases, Ontario’s Divisional Court has ruled that under the Ontario Human Rights Code employers are entitled to request that an employee undergo an independent medical examination as part of the duty to accommodate, provided the medical information required by the employer cannot reasonably be obtained from the employee’s treating practitioner.
Practically speaking, it is in the employee’s best interest to keep the employer in the loop. The employer and the LTD carrier are entitled to updates on an employee’s condition and their ability to return to work, within reasonable limits. A failure to communicate with the employer about an employee’s medical status may lead to an eventual claim for frustration of contract.
Misconception #2: The Employer and LTD carrier have the obligation to obtain updated information
While most employers and LTD carriers will take the initiative to check in with an injured employee, ultimately, it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure they are providing sufficient information to satisfy the policy definition for disability.
LTD carriers require information in order to appropriately adjudicate a file. That information comes from the employee and their treatment team. As a recipient of LTD benefits, an employee has an obligation to provide ongoing information to the LTD carrier. In fact, many disability definitions require that the employee be under the continuous care of a physician in order to qualify for benefits. If an employee fails to provide the required information, the carrier may be entitled to terminate entitlement to benefits on the basis that there is insufficient information to determine their ongoing disability.
Where a medical picture is particularly complex or prolonged, many LTD policies allow the LTD carrier to arrange their own independent medical examination to determine an employee’s ongoing eligibility.
Misconception #3: An employee cannot be terminated while on disability and does not have to return to work unless they are 100% recovered
The duty to accommodate is reciprocal. Employees have a duty to participate in reasonable accommodation attempts. If employers can provide modified meaningful work to an injured employee, the employee may be required to attempt a return to work. Many LTD policies will have provisions regarding “rehabilitation programs” which allow for gradual returns. Employees who fail to comply with these provisions may find themselves in violation of the Policy.
Similarly, an employee can be terminated while receiving LTD benefits, so long as their disability did not form part of the basis for the termination. As an example, during a factory shut down. However, it is worth noting that employees in this situation may still be entitled to pay in lieu of notice rather than “working notice.” Additionally, in some cases employees can be terminated on the basis that their disability has made it impossible to complete their contract of employment, resulting in frustration of contract. While each case is unique, an employer who is capable of showing there was no reasonable likelihood of the employee returning to work within the foreseeable future may have a valid claim for frustration, as seen in Roskraft v. RONA Inc. In a valid frustration scenario, employers are entitled to consider the contract at an end and employees will only be entitled to the minimum statutory payments required under the Employment Standards Act, 2000.
Conclusion: Avoiding disputes through collaboration
When dealing with an injured employee, benefit entitlement, accommodation, and potential termination of employment are areas of significant risk and concern for all parties involved. Early, often, and accurate information exchange can bust many of the myths in these complex multi-party disability situations. The overlap of contractual, statutory and common law obligations between the three parties make the management of long-term disability claims particularly complex. If an employee fails to take positive steps to advise their employer of their situation or cooperate with the LTD carrier, they may find themselves on the receiving end of a claim for frustration or abandonment.
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