I’ve mentioned previously that dealing with discrimination at work is a risk for anyone with a chronic illness. In a way, I get it – what employer wants to pay for someone who can’t always perform at high capacity, and who will take far more sick days that your average employee? On the other hand, it’s hard to be sympathetic when it’s your livelihood at stake. Got to love capitalism.
But discrimination is a reality for people with chronic illness, so what can we do about it?
I’m a lawyer, so the first thing I want to talk about in this post is the law. However, I’m not an employment lawyer or a discrimination/human rights lawyer, so my understanding of the legislation is comparatively simplistic. That may not be a bad thing, though, because I don’t want to bore you to tears.
The two key pieces of legislation that any endo-sufferer should know the names of are the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). That Cth in brackets means that it is Commonwealth legislation, so applies Australia-wide. There may be additional Acts in your jurisdiction that supplement the framework created by these two.
The Fair Work Act (“FWA”) is basically an outline of all the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees. Be wary – the protections for unfair dismissal, which are of most concern for us, don’t kick in until you’ve been in a position for 6 months, or 12 months if you work for a small business (less than 15 employees). s385 of the FWA covers unfair dismissal. Basically, it’s unfair if it is harsh, unjust or unreasonable. It can also be unfair dismissal if you were told you were being made redundant, but you actually weren’t and the organisation was just looking for a sneaky way to fire you.
s340 of the FWA also protects you from an employer taking some sort of action against you, such as cutting pay or hours, because you exercised (or chose not to exercise) a workplace right, such as taking sick leave or complaining about another staff member. s342 sets out a whole bunch of things that may be adverse actions in detail. Under s343, employers also aren’t allowed to bully you into an action, and s344 prevents them from exerting undue pressure on you to change your working arrangements.
The FWA also has in-built anti-discrimination conditions. s352 means they can’t discriminate against you for temporary absence due to illness or injury. s351 means that they cannot take adverse action against you because of a disability. HOWEVER, that does not protect you if you simply are not capable of meeting the requirements of the job. If your endometriosis becomes so bad that you cannot carry out a key function of the job, changing your job or even firing you may not be illegal or discriminatory.
The Disability Discrimination Act (“DDA”) focuses on discrimination generally due to disability, including in areas such as education or access to premises. It differentiates between direct discrimination (treating someone with a disability differently) and indirect discrimination (requiring someone with a disability to comply with a requirement that they cannot comply with where reasonable adjustments could be made to allow them to comply).
s15 of the DDA focuses on discrimination at work. It makes it illegal to take the disability into account when determining if someone should have a job or what the conditions (pay, hours etc) of that job should be, to deny them access to training, promotions or transfers, to dismiss them, or to in any other way subject them to a detriment because of their disability.
Workplaces will generally also have their own enterprise agreements or awards that may also cover some of these things.
All of this raises the question, of course, of whether endometriosis is a disability.
Is Endometriosis a Disability?
Officially? No. The Department of Social Services does not list it as one for eligibility for a carer, but that list is very small anyway and you have extremely low day-to-day function to qualify. It doesn’t appear that we qualify for the National Disability Advocacy Programme either. I think there is some scope to argue that it may be a disability for the purposes of the National Disability Services, based on their definition of “conditions that are attributable to a physical cause or impact on the ability to perform physical activities”. However, the sporadic and irregular nature of the flare-ups may disqualify many of us. Those in constant, extreme pain are more likely to be able to mount a successful argument there.
However, those lists are about access to services. The relevant legislation, the DDA, includes us. s4 defines disability as including “the presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness”. So we are arguably protected from discrimination based on our endometriosis under that Act. Importantly, the FWA doesn’t require a disability to activate most of its protections anyway -non-disabled people are protected from unfair dismissal too. Given that these pieces of legislation are more important than the things mentioned above in terms of protecting us at work, I think that’s a win. In the face of unemployment, it’s certainly an argument I’d give a whirl.
What can you do?
But what do you do if you experience discrimination at work? It’s all very well for me to say, “That’s illegal!”, but how does that help you? You have a few different avenues to go down in terms of seeking a remedy for the wrong that’s been done to you.
The first step is almost always to attempt to resolve the matter internally. Speak to your boss, to HR, to your boss’ boss, whoever you need to to get things moving.
However, if a matter can’t be resolved internally, you have to take it elsewhere.
If you have been unfairly dismissed, you have an incredibly tight time limit to lodge an unfair dismissal application with the Fair Work Commission – just 21 days. That’s real days, including weekends and holidays, not business days, so get it lodged ASAP. The site has a load of detail on unfair dismissal and making the application here. Even if you aren’t feeling too certain and want to wait for legal advice but can’t get in with a lawyer before the 21 days are up, just lodge it. You can always amend it with a lawyer’s help later, so just give it your best shot and get it in.
If your application is upheld, you can get one of two things – compensation or reinstatement. Most people don’t want unhappy jobs back and go with compensation. The FWC can also force the former employer to give you a good reference so they can’t take revenge on you for winning.
If you haven’t been dismissed but are having other issues at work such as forced reduction of pay or hours, a change of position or being denied access to promotion, you can make a General Protections Application. You can also make one of these if you are dismissed but it doesn’t amount to an unfair dismissal (although usually you’d just make the unfair dismissal application). If the GP application is about dismissal, that tight 21 day limit still applies. If it’s about other stuff, relax, you’ve got six years to lodge. It’s always better to lodge sooner, though, where witnesses’ memories are fresh and the evidence is easily reached. Here’s some great information sheets on GPs.
You can also make an application to the Human Rights Commission about workplace discrimination under the DDA. You can either apply through the Australian HRC or your state or territory HRC. The process is pretty similar for both – you have a conciliation, at which the HRC tries to get you to come to an agreement. If you do, your employer may offer an apology, compensation, reinstatement or systemic changes in the workplace through training and education. If you don’t…I find that the process tends to fizzle out a bit there, in my limited experience with clients with HRC complaints. Generally I push people more towards the FWC. That being said, there’s no harm in doing both.
Where can you get help?
Being a lawyer, I have a pretty good handle on what they charge, and they aren’t cheap. I would always start by calling the Legal Aid helpline for your state or territory. If they do employment law and you are eligible for their assistance, they will get you to fill out an application form to have a lawyer represent you. Just beware – the assessment process for some states can take a very long time. Last I heard from NSW, it was taking 6 weeks. Smaller jurisdictions may be quicker. The point is, if it is an unfair dismissal application, start it yourself and don’t wait for Legal Aid.
However, even if Legal Aid can’t represent you, they can at least give you some information over the phone to point you in the right direction.
TAS – 1300 366 611
VIC – 1300 792 387
NSW – 1300 888 529
ACT – 1300 654 314
QLD – 1300 651 188
NT – 1800 019 343
WA – 1300 650 579
SA – 1300 366 424
If they can’t assist you enough, call the Law Society for your state or territory. They are obligated to give you a referral to a law firm. Ask specifically for lawyers who do a no-win no-fee arrangement. That way, if you aren’t successful, you won’t end up whacked with a big legal bill on top of no job. If you do win, they’ll simply take their fee out of your compensation (if you are compensated). It’s also worth asking the Law Society about pro bono help. That’s where private law firms help you out for free, usually because you can’t afford them but still have a good case. It’s a good option if you earn too much or have too many assets to qualify for ongoing help but can’t afford a lawyer (which is the vast majority of people, to be quite honest).
I hope that’s a not-too complicated summary of what the law says and what you can do if you experience discrimination at work because of your endometriosis. Has anyone been through the legal system for something similar? Have you been discriminated against because of your illness?