When Disability Hits The Workplace: What To Do Before Filing For Benefits

If a business owner is hit by a car and suffers brain damage, he likely won’t have trouble obtaining long-term disability benefits. But some disabilities occur gradually.  For example, a business owner diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease may continue to work for years after the initial diagnosis.

Applying for benefits requires thought and planning, according to attorneys Woody Connette and Natalie Potter, specialists in disability law with Essex Richards in Charlotte. Business owners face special challenges, as a disability could strike either them or their employees, and either scenario will be disruptive to the company.

Here are three tips to keep in mind when disability affects the workplace:

* Consult with your physician before making the final decision to apply for long term disability benefits. A long-term disability carrier naturally will ask your physician why your condition today prevents you from working, compared to your condition yesterday, when you were working. Make certain your doctor understands how your condition affects your ability to work and is ready to support you in your disability application. “Ask for your doctor’s advice on whether or not you should apply for disability benefits before you do it,” Connette advises.

Obtaining benefits is much easier when there has been a long history of medical treatment aimed at enabling you to continue to work for as long as possible, and then applying for disability only after all available medical interventions have failed.

Sometimes, patients apply for disability benefits without first consulting their physician. The physician then receives a request from the insurance company asking for a statement regarding the patient’s ability to work.  Caught unaware, the doctor is unable to provide an opinion or responds equivocally. “That’s when we see problems and a denial of benefits,” Connette says.

* Cooperate with the insurance company’s claims examiners. Claims examiners review every disability benefit application. They typically also obtain copies of medical records, attending physician statements, employer statements and other information necessary to determine whether or not a person is disabled.

In some cases, an examiner will become concerned that a disability benefit claimant is trying to conceal or withhold information. When that happens, “the examiner is much more vigilant and careful in making a claim determination,” Potter says.  While benefits might eventually be awarded, the process can be much more time-consuming.  Open and forthright communication between the applicant and the claims examiner makes for a much smoother process.

* Create a workplace environment in which employees feel comfortable talking, when needed, about their disability. Most people prefer not to discuss their medical condition or disabilities. However, when an employee’s disability is beginning to affect job performance, it is important that the employee’s supervisor, and sometimes coworkers, know about the employee’s circumstances. Colleagues and supervisors may be able to help in accommodating the disability so the employee can continue to work.

If a person with a disability is unable to perform as effectively, supervisors may become concerned about the employee’s performance.   For that reason, the business owner must know and understand the challenges that the employee faces.  The insurance company may ask the business owner for observations about the employee’s condition.

“This is dicey territory,” Connette says. “An employer should be careful not to probe into an employee’s medical condition, which may violate laws protecting patient privacy and disability rights.” On the other hand, Connette notes, “Depending on the size of the business, there may be a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to assist an employee with a disability in continuing to work.”

It’s human nature to assume a disability will never happen to us or to our employees. But if it does, having a basic knowledge about disability insurance can make the situation easier for employers and employees alike.