Can an employee be penalized for mental health reasons?

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Can an employee be penalized for mental health reasons?

An employee left work because she was
having a mental health break down. Her
co-workers messaged her via social media
and asked if she can be safe. She stated
she wanted to kill her ex. They called
the police for a welfare check. The HR
department of her workplace had her sign
a last chance agreement which allowed
her to keep her job but she was put on
disciplinary action. The disciplinary
action caused her to lose the tuition
reimbursement, child care reimbursement
and bonus benefits. Can the employee
actually be put on disciplinary action
even if she had been punched out from
work?

Asked on August 8, 2017 under Employment Labor Law, Wisconsin

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 years ago | Contributor

You write that she "left work because she was having a mental health breakdown"; if she left before her workday or shift ended, and even more, if she displayed any symptoms of volitility at work (e.g. yelling, crying, inappropriate reactions or statements, disquieting statements, etc.) then yes, they may put her on disciplinary action. An employer may not penalize an employee for having mental health issues, BUT the employer may take action against an employee for what she does at work or for leaving work when she should not, even if the cause of the behavior was a mental health issue. In this case, it is the behavior, not the condition, resulting in the discipline; employers have a legal and legitimate right to ensure the safety of their workplace, to keep it from being disrupted, to manage their staff and their staff's hours, and to not accept increased risk or liability. So inappropriate behavior or comments at work, cutting a shift or workday short, etc. can legally result in disciplinary conduct. 
(To use an analogy: consider alcoholism. An employer may not suffer disciplinary or other negative employment action because he or she is an alcoholic--but can be disciplined or even fired for drinking at, or being impaired at, work.)
Only if *everything* occured not at work (e.g. she did not act out or say anything troubling at work; she did not leave work early; etc.; no threats were made against the workplace or coworkers; etc.) would this seem to be inappropriate--if there was no workplace impact, then the employer cannot take action. In this event, she may wish to contact the federal EEOC or the state department of equal/civil rights to see if she has a disability-related (mental conditions can be considered disabilities) employment discrimination claim.


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