Diabetes and the Workplace

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2020.

Having a fulfilling and rewarding job is important to most people. In fact, our work helps us define who we are and gives us independence, economic stability, and a sense of belonging in our communities.

If you have diabetes you can have nearly any career you want, with a few exceptions. There are still some jobs that are restricted, mainly because of insulin dependence. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not allow people with diabetes who take insulin to work as commercial airline pilots. Most branches of the military also restrict enlistment for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. However, some people who are diagnosed with diabetes while they are serving in the military are allowed to remain enlisted.1

Besides these exceptions, a person with diabetes can work in any career for which they are qualified. Many fields, including law enforcement, now follow guidelines that were developed by diabetes healthcare professionals to assess whether a person is able to do the job instead of automatically disqualifying them because of their diabetes. Advances in laws and medicine have also allowed people with diabetes to gain employment with jobs like commercial driving, FBI agents, and mechanics.1

Knowing your workplace rights

Even though diabetes and related complications can interfere with the ability to work, it is important to know your rights in the workplace and your options in case you find it too difficult to continue to work. Thankfully, there are legal protections to help keep people with diabetes and other medical conditions in the workforce and to protect them from workplace discrimination.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was put into law in 1990 and updated in 2008. This federal law provides legal protection to people with disabilities who work for private companies with 15 or more employees, as well as people who work for state or local governments. Most states also have their own laws against employment discrimination of people with disabilities.2

Under these laws, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against a person with a disability who is qualified for a given job, as long as they can carry out the required activities of the job with or without reasonable accommodations on the part of the employer.2

People who have diabetes are protected by the ADA because they are “substantially limited in the major life activity of endocrine function.” This applies whether you are able to control your blood glucose levels with insulin, medicine, or diet and exercise.2

If you are applying for a job, it is illegal for an employer to ask for medical information until a job offer has been made, and a job offer may be withdrawn only if a person proves unable to carry out tasks required by the job. Once an employee is on the job, the employer may only ask medical questions of an employee if they are directly related to performing activities related to the job.2

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that an employer must make “reasonable accommodations” to allow a disabled person to continue to perform job duties. For a person with diabetes, accommodations may include:2,3

  • Regular breaks for blood glucose monitoring and insulin injections during the workday
  • A large computer monitor to accommodate for diabetic retinopathy
  • Special workplace seating to accommodate for neuropathy
  • The ability to keep diabetes supplies and food close by

If you think you have been denied employment or discriminated against on the job due to your diabetes, the American Diabetes Association provides information on steps you can take against adverse action and termination.4

Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is another important law that protects people who must miss work due to their own serious health condition or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Diabetes qualifies as a serious condition if it requires hospitalization or if it requires you to go to the doctor at least 2 times per year.5

The law applies to companies that have at least 50 employees working within 75 miles of each other. FMLA requires employers to grant 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to employees during any year-long period to take care of their health or their family member’s health. Health insurance premiums covered by employers must continue to be paid during FMLA leave.5

FMLA leave is available for any employee who has been employed by a qualifying company for at least 1 year and has worked at least 1,250 hours during the year before the start of the leave. You must give your employer 30 days’ advance notice, when possible.5

If you qualify for FMLA, your employer must allow you to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave. You can take the leave all at once or in smaller blocks of time. You will need to provide information from your doctor explaining why you need to take leave for your own or a family member’s diabetes.5

If your employer prevents you from using FMLA or denies you your FMLA rights, you can file an FMLA complaint with the Department of Labor.

Employment services for people with diabetes

There are several employment services and resources that can help you continue to work if you are affected by a health condition like diabetes. These services usually include:6

  • An assessment of the extent of your disability and need to correct or compensate for your disability
  • Vocational counseling and guidance
  • Vocational training to help you find gainful employment
  • Job placement services
  • Services that follow-up on your program after you find a job

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is one such resource you can take advantage of to learn about your legal rights, accommodation strategies, and options. You can also search the JAN website to find employment services and resources in your area.

Diabetes and disability benefits

If you find that you can no longer carry out your work activities because of complications or symptoms associated with diabetes, you might want to consider applying for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. The entitles you to receive monthly benefits if you are unable to work for a year or more because of your disability.7

The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) considers a person disabled if:7

  • You cannot do work you did before
  • The SSA decides you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition
  • Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least 1 year or to result in death

In order to qualify for benefits, you also must have worked long and recently enough. The amount needed changes from year to year. If you meet the criteria, the SSA then uses a process involving 5 questions:7

  • Are you working?
  • Is your condition “severe?”
  • Is your condition found on the list of disabling conditions?
  • Can you do the work you did previously?
  • Can you do any other type of work?

Before you apply, you will need to gather information about yourself, your medical condition, and your work. You may also need to provide documents like your birth certificate, proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the United States, and medical records.Q The SSA website provides more information, including a disability checklist and instructions on how to apply for disability benefits.

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