Diabetes and the Workplace -- Am I Being Discriminated Against?

I do not currently have a ‘full time job.’ Instead, I have many part time jobs, and free lance jobs. At one of them, I am required to be at an office for around 24 hours a week. I don’t technically get a break by law, but my employer is quite reasonable and allows me to eat at my desk, or treat any low blood glucose episodes accordingly.

But I am a very lucky person. Not every employer is this understanding. In 2010, I had a job with a certain popular, religious thrift store. The position required me to be on my feet all day, for around 8 hours a day, and with only a 15 minute break. To make matters worse, there was no appropriate employee break area, no place to really store foods, and since it was the dead of winter, no real place to sit around outside.

So, I felt if I asked nicely, surely my employer could accommodate a chair for me, and maybe 30 minutes to have a meal, and allow me to go to the back room and properly manage my diabetes, or treat a low blood glucose if needed.  Well, I was wrong.

The store manager became very irate and indignant. He took me into his office, and yelled at me over not having mentioned I had diabetes in my employment application – or else he would not have hired me. He cussed me out, and even threatened to come and ‘sort me out’ with another manager. Though I had worked in Human Resources before, I was very scared of how that went down. I stood my ground and informed the manager that I was familiar with the law, and that I could call the Americans with Disabilities Act, if he wanted. He huffed, and puffed, and said he was familiar with it, too, and that he could fire me on the spot, right there and then. He didn’t… Probably out of hesitation for making a further mistake – perhaps he was not used to someone fighting back. But at the time, I didn’t do more, and I regret that. I was allowed some accommodations under duress, and those folks made my life so difficult, that I ended up writing a letter to the upper head honchos (that went ignored), and so, I  eventually quit.

This is not an uncommon situation. People with diabetes suffer discrimination all the time at the hands of employers, police, schools, and sometimes even medical personnel. The laws vary country by country. If you are in the U.S. and suspect that you, or a loved one are being discriminated, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your Medical Information is Protected Under the Law: Under U.S. law, you are NOT obligated to tell anyone in any employment application that you have diabetes, or any other illness of any kind. To require an applicant to disclose that is illegal, and discriminatory. Hiring of employees is to be solely based on their ability and preparation to perform a position advertised.
  • An Employer Must Provide a Reasonable Accommodation: This might mean time to eat proper meals, or dose insulin accordingly, or treat low blood glucose episodes at one’s desk. However, there are limitations to accommodations. A person is not guaranteed a job if they cannot perform the essentials of a position, or if an accommodation is beyond the scope of what an employer could reasonably furnish (especially financially).
  • Diabetes Itself is NOT a Disability: If you do not develop certain complications from diabetes, such as advanced neuropathy, etc., then you are not immediately considered a person with a disability. You wouldn’t qualify, for example, for Social Security benefits due to a disability. This nuance may affect the degree of accommodations an employee is obligated to provide.
  • Employee Break Laws Vary State By State: Not all states are obligated to give you a break from your duties, more than one break, or even more than a 15 minute break. You should inform yourself as to your state’s employment laws, and contact your local department of labor.

If you feel you are being discriminated against, please contact the American Diabetes Association, or the offices of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). They will be able to guide you through the process of exploring your concerns. Sometimes, awareness is not just something we spread – it’s the law.

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