John Baumann knows all about the legal issues surrounding Parkinson’s in the workplace. For 22 years, he served as general counsel lawyer for one of the biggest corporations in the United States. His days were filled with top-level demands of advising the CEO, board of directors and managing the legal duties of a multinational company.
Then one day John noticed a tremor in his hand. Having just had a cast removed from his wrist, he assumed it was related to his recent soccer injury. When he was eventually diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s, the high-powered lawyer experienced a flood of emotions. “I thought I was Superman. My initial reaction was denial and shock, followed quickly by, ‘Do I tell my employer?’” John said.
John continued at his corporate law position for seven years after diagnosis. During that time, he gained first-hand knowledge of both the emotional and legal challenges surrounding Parkinson’s in the workplace. His personal experience led to his decision to start representing people with disabilities, along with teaching employment law at the University of Louisville.
As both a person with Parkinson’s and an employment law specialist, John offers unique insight into strategies to manage, plan and work with Parkinson’s. John agrees with those who advocate talking to your boss sooner than later, but suggests some practical steps in the process:
Build Your Support
John recommends developing a support team as soon as possible. He says the team should be made up of key individuals and professionals who will serve as your safety net and counsel, and should include:
- A Parkinson’s support group – This group can be an invaluable source of friendship and emotional support, as well as a network of local resources and assistance.
- A financial advisor – The unknowns of any medical condition bring financial questions. Having a trained financial counselor advise you in proactive strategies can reduce confusion and enhance financial peace of mind.
- An employment lawyer – John admits some people might feel uncomfortable seeking out a lawyer before talking with their employer, but this is exactly when a lawyer should be consulted – before any employment decisions are made.
Why An Employment Lawyer?
According to John, an employment lawyer can not only help you understand your legal rights but also develop a proactive plan. Most lawyers will advise you to notify your employer of your diagnosis in writing and to start documenting every discussion or occurrence where your Parkinson’s plays a role. John additionally suggests that you ask to be a part of all accommodation discussions; offer suggestions about potential accommodations and be clear about the type of work that you are able to accomplish.
In the United States, every state differs in their legal process, so you will need to find an attorney who specializes in employment law in your state. Start by searching employment attorneys in your state online, or check out the National Employment Lawyers Association’s (NELA) “Find-A-Lawyer” service on their website. Note this is not a screened referral service and should not be considered a “recommendation,” but can provide a first step in finding legal assistance in your area.
What does the ADA provide?
You can’t talk about accommodations without talking about the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools and transportation. A comprehensive review of the law is available here, but the most important thing for people with Parkinson’s to know is that the ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified employees that allows them to do their job without causing “undue hardship” to the employer.
Some reasonable accommodations might include:
- Providing an ergonomic workstation
- Providing alternative computer access
- Providing a note taker
- Installing automatic door openers
- Moving workstations closer to other work areas
- Scheduling periodic rest breaks
- Allowing a flexible work schedule or working from home
- Providing speech amplification or other communication devices
- Providing memory aids, such as schedulers or organizers
- Reducing distractions in the work environment
Is the FMLA for me?
One of the resources that John says he wished he would have utilized is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This provision allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical-related purposes. Because the time off can be used on an intermittent basis, even hourly, it can provide a flexible option for days when you just need to stay home and rest or when longer time off may be required.
The Bottom Line
Whether it’s ADA, FMLA or other available assistance, John reminds people with Parkinson’s that they have the right to ask for what they need and to use the resources available. “Don’t be ashamed to take advantage of what’s been put in place to protect you. Take advantage of FMLA if you can. If you’re having a bad day, take it off. Make time for self-care,” he says.
For practical ways to build self-care techniques into your daily work and more on legal considerations for people with Parkinson’s who are still working, pre-order the new Every Victory Counts® manual, which is set to release later this summer.