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Coughing up a doctor's note

What should employer do if employee is having trouble getting medical information on injury or disability?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

When we were kids, we had to bring a note from our parents if we were off sick from school. For working adults, the rules of the game are pretty much the same when it comes to being absent — sometimes we have to bring a note from our doctor if we miss work due to illness.

Usually a day or two is OK, and many employers provide an allotment of sick days. But if someone goes over that allotment, or misses too many days in a row, she usually needs proof of her illness in the form of a doctor’s note or medical certificate.

If the employer doesn’t get that note in a timely manner, whose responsibility is it? It’s easy to say the onus falls on the employee, but how much effort should she make?

Last year, a British Columbia railway worker sprained his ankle at work. He finished his shift, but his ankle got worse and he went to his doctor, who prescribed a week of rest. The employer wanted the doctor to fill out a functional abilities form to determine whether the employee could do some light duties, or at least to know how long the employee was expected to be off work. The employee mentioned the form to his doctor, but the doctor was initially reluctant, saying workers’ compensation forms were more important.

The employer grew suspicious about the extent of the injury, and stressed the importance of the abilities assessment. The employee’s doctor continued to stall before finally filling out the form after the employee made a special appointment for that purpose. But by this time, the original week of rest was over and the employer was still waiting to find out when the employee could return and what he could do. Ultimately, the employee was dismissed for various reasons, including the delay in providing the required medical information. (Though he was later reinstated with a one-month suspension.)

A doctor who delays providing medical information can put an employee in a tough spot if the employer is demanding that information. But the employer needs that information to make informed decisions on how to handle the situation, with regards to medical leave and accommodation. In such circumstances, if the employee can’t or won’t push for more urgency, should the employee be encouraged — or required — to see another doctor who will provide the necessary information? Or even a doctor retained by the employer? Should an employee be disciplined if she can’t get that information from the doctor?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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