Suzanne Lucas

When Your Employee Needs Major Surgery: What You Need to Know

Big companies generally have plans in place for when an employee needs major surgery. Small businesses, on the other hand, probably have never dealt with a scenario like this before.

If this situation arises at your company, you may struggle with what to do, at first. Here’s what you need to know:

For Larger Companies

If you have 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius, and this particular employee has been employed for a year and worked 1,250 hours in that year, the employee is eligible for protection under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Department of Labor provides forms for your employee and their physician to fill out. If the surgery is scheduled in advance, the employee should fill those out before the procedure. If it’s an emergency, of course, the forms can be completed when the individual is feeling better.

FMLA says that your employee can take up to 12 weeks off, unpaid. You can offer pay, and oftentimes, short-term disability policies provide some income during this time — so check with your carrier. When the employee returns, they need to be placed in the same or similar role, with no pay cuts or punishments, as FMLA time can’t be held against an employee.

For Smaller Businesses

If your company has fewer than 50 but more than 15 employees, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may cover your employee. ADA covers permanent and temporary disabilities that affect major life functions. If someone is confined to a bed after major surgery and can’t work for an extended period, ADA probably applies.

While the courts are still battling out exactly what’s covered under ADA, it’s better to assume that it applies, and act accordingly. ADA requires reasonable accommodations for an employee with a disability. This can include extended time off. Remember, an employee can be eligible for 12 weeks of FMLA leave and then an extended leave under ADA.

If your company employs fewer than 15 workers, and your state law allows, you can do what you want — as long as you’re consistent. Offering proper coverage and assistance for major medical issues, though, is an important benefit that makes employees feel happy and supported.

Beyond the Law

Once you’ve figured out the legal aspects, you need to figure out the practical. Make a plan with your affected employee and your remaining employees to cover the vital tasks while the person is out. Will you divide up work functions or let some things slide? Would you hire a temp to handle the basics while the major tasks are divided up? Or hire a consultant to handle the major things? All of these things can be practical, depending on your business.

In addition, develop a game plan or timeline with the employee and have them coordinate with human resources. It’s OK for them not to know when they will be back, but you can discuss general dates or communication protocol.

Overall, make sure you create a plan and comply with the law. How you react in this situation demonstrates how valuable your employees are to all of your staff.

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she interviewed and hired employees, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. Her writings have appeared in Inc. Magazine, CBS MoneyWatch, US News, Readers Digest and other publications. She focuses on helping businesses nurture great employees and helping employees enjoy great careers.