Apr 19, 2023

What Are the Key Differences Between Workers’ Compensation and Disability Leave?

Employees needing time off because of a medical or disability-related issue may have federal leave rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the FMLA.

Employees needing time off because of a medical or disability-related issue may have federal leave rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the FMLA. Additionally, state workers’ compensation laws may have leave provisions that apply.

In certain circumstances, provisions of the ADA, the FMLA and, workers’ compensation laws can apply to the same employee.


The ADA is a federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities by eliminating barriers to their participation in many aspects of working and living in the United States. Title I of the ADA prohibits covered employers from discriminating against people with disabilities. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees. While the ADA does not specifically require employers to provide medical or disability-related leave, it does require employers to reasonably accommodate individuals with disabilities.

Accommodations can include modifications to work schedules, such as medical or disability-related leave. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance, there’s no set leave period mandated by the ADA because accommodations depend on individual circumstances, and employee accommodation requests are generally granted unless doing so would result in “undue hardship” to the employer. Often, leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA will need to be considered when an employee is not eligible for federal or state job-protected leave or has exhausted such leave.


The FMLA is a federal law designed to help workers balance work and family responsibilities by giving employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. The FMLA applies to private employers with 50 or more employees. Employers with fewer than 50 employees can also choose to provide benefits similar to those required by the FMLA.

Employees are eligible to take FMLA leave if they have worked for their employer for at least 12 months, have logged at least 1,250 hours over the 12 months immediately prior to the leave and are employed at a worksite where the employer employs at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of the worksite.

Eligible employees may take leave for treatment of or recovery from serious health conditions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) guidance, the FMLA’s definition of a serious health condition is broader than the ADA’s definition of a disability, as it includes pregnancy and many illnesses, injuries, impairments, or physical and mental conditions that require multiple treatments or intermittent absences. Several states have enacted their own family and medical leave laws, some of which provide greater amounts of leave and benefits than those provided by the FMLA. When employees are covered by both federal and state family and medical leave laws, they may be entitled to greater rights or more generous benefits provided under different portions of each law. The DOL provides a guide for employers that covers virtually every aspect of FMLA leave administration.

Workers’ Compensation and Disability Insurance

Workers’ compensation laws apply to almost every employer. Each state administers its own laws requiring employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. The state where an employer does business will determine any workers’ compensation insurance requirements. Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance that provides benefits to employees who become injured or sick at work. It typically covers injured or sick employees’ medical expenses related to the illness or injury and replaces a portion of their missed wages. Workers’ compensation may also cover retraining costs, compensation for permanent injuries, and death benefits. Importantly, it compensates employees for injuries and illnesses for which employers would be liable. Therefore, workers’ compensation reduces an employer’s liability for work-related injuries and illnesses. Employees cannot be disciplined or terminated for having applied for workers’ compensation benefits.

Similar to workers’ compensation, disability insurance replaces a percentage of an employee’s wages for a set period of time if an injury or illness prevents them from working. However, unlike workers’ compensation, disability insurance covers both work-related and nonwork-related injuries and illnesses. Either short-term or long-term disability insurance can be offered. Employees generally obtain disability insurance through their employer, but they can also purchase their own policy. In some situations, employees may qualify to receive both workers’ compensation and short-term disability insurance.

An employee’s work-related injury or illness may also be considered a serious health condition under the FMLA. Employers covered under the federal FMLA may want to review an employee’s FMLA eligibility when leave from work is required due to a work-related injury. In such situations, workers’ compensation will run concurrently with an employee’s FMLA leave entitlement.

For more information about worker's compensation or disability leave, please do not hesitate to reach out. Our team of HR, benefits and payroll experts is here to help.

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