People with disabilities who work, and their families, need to know their legal rights and available benefits. The patchwork of laws and programs that can help workers with disabilities in New Jersey is complicated. This article gives a brief overview of New Jersey laws and programs that can help.
1. Getting and keeping a job when you have a disability
People with disabilities who are able to do some work may worry about how they will get or keep a job. Disability rights laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), and The Rehabilitation Act, sometimes forbid discrimination in hiring, pay, advancement, and job duties for people with disabilities. You can file claims at administrative agencies and/or courts if your employer violates these laws.
Sometimes, “reasonable accommodations” can help a worker with a disability keep a job. Disability rights laws allow workers to request modifications or adjustments to a job or work environment that will allow them to do the essential functions of a job. For example, if a clerk with an injured hand was having trouble handling books at work, she might request the accommodation of using a book holder and page turner device.
The Job Accommodation Network is a free resource that describes what reasonable accommodations are. It gives tips on how to request them from an employer. It includes A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations, and reasonable accommodation ideas for many types of disabilities. Workers can also request accommodations in the job application process. The accommodation must be reasonable, and the worker must be able to do the essential job functions.
What if there is no accommodation that can allow the worker to do essential job functions? Workers can ask that the employer transfer them to another open job they can do. If that does not work, and the worker still feels there is other work he or she can do, a vocational rehabilitation counselor might help. These counselors consider your skills, education, interests, and abilities. Then they recommend types of jobs that would be a good match for you. The New Jersey Department of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS) can sometimes help, and provide other services designed to help people with disabilities get or keep a job.
Sometimes people might miss work because of a disability. Workers should understand and follow their employer’s sick and vacation leave policies to reduce the chance of losing their jobs. State and federal laws sometimes give limited job protection for medical leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for a worker’s serious medical condition. Some close family members can also use the FMLA to care for a person with a serious medical condition. Note that the law does not apply to small employers, and you have to have worked long enough to qualify. See Wage and Hour Division (WHD) (from the US Department of Labor) for further details.
The New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA) provides 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave in a 24-month period to provide care for the serious illness of a parent, child, or spouse. The NJFLA does not allow time off for a worker's own serious illness. For more information, see How does the NJFLA relate to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act? (from the NJ Division on Civil Rights).
The job protection provided by the FMLA and the NJFLA is not absolute. For example, if a worker was out on FMLA leave, and her entire department got laid off, she could also get laid off. The law is designed to prevent the employer from firing or discriminating against the worker because of the protected leave.
2. Other Practical Help with Work and Daily Activities
People with disabilities and their families can sometimes benefit from other programs and services that can help them get or keep a job. Some examples:
3. Cash Benefit Programs
The cash benefit programs available to New Jersey workers with disabilities are confusing. It can be hard to figure which ones apply in your situation. However, it's worth the effort because filing the wrong type of claim can cause delays.
If your disability takes you out of work for a short period of time, and the disability is NOT job-related, then the Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) program might replace some of your income. Ask your employer about the benefit. For more information, see Temporary Disability (from The NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development).
If your disability takes you out of work (short or long term) and it IS job-related, then your employer may owe you workers’ compensation benefits. This is a type of no-fault insurance that can partially replace wages and provide some medical help. For more information, see Workers' Compensation (from The NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development).
If someone besides your employer injured you and was at fault, he or she may be liable to you under New Jersey tort laws. You may need to make an insurance or legal claim to recover your damages.
To help explain the difference, if a person with a disability had a flare-up of symptoms and had to miss work for three weeks, TDI benefits might apply. However, if the same person fell down the stairs at work and broke an arm, workers’ compensation would likely apply. If the same person was crossing the street in a pedestrian walkway and was hit by an inattentive driver, tort laws would likely apply.
New Jersey Family Leave Insurance provides up to six weeks of cash benefits to covered individuals to care for sick family members (or to bond with newborn or newly adopted children). This is a cash benefit, and not protected job leave, which is covered above. For more information see Family Leave Insurance (from The NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development).
Some employers provide workers with long-term disability benefit insurance, which partially replaces income for longer term loss of work due to injury or illness. You can also purchase this insurance from private insurance companies. These policies are governed by the terms of the insurance contracts.
The U.S. Social Security Administration has programs that provide cash and medical benefits for some people with severe long-term disabilities (generally lasting at least 12 months) who cannot do substantial work activity. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides a small cash benefit and Medicaid health insurance for those with very low income and resources. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides a cash benefit and Medicare health insurance for those who have worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes, as well as some of their dependents. The Medicare insurance may be subject to a two-year waiting period. For more information on SSDI, see Social Security Protection If You Become Disabled (from Social Security Online).
Unemployment Insurance (UI) provides cash benefits to some workers who have lost their jobs but who are still able to work. The UI program requires workers to try to find work, have a sufficient work history, and certify that they are able to work. If a person becomes disabled while on UI benefits, the Disability During Unemployment program might provide cash assistance.
The WorkFirst NJ Program (WFNJ), New Jersey’s welfare program, provides cash and other benefits to people and families with very low income and resources. The program for adults without young children is called General Assistance (GA), and the one for families with young children is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). For more information, see WorkFirst NJ (NJ's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families - TANF) (from the NJ Department of Human Services).
Some of these cash benefits might be reduced if you have other income.
4. Health Coverage
Workers with disabilities need health insurance to help maintain employment. New Jersey has health insurance programs for people and families with low income and resources. New Jersey Medicaid is one such program, which serves some people with disabilities, those 65 years old or older, families with dependent children, and pregnant women.
The New Jersey Charity Care program can help with hospital-based costs for people with low incomes who don’t have insurance, or who do not have enough insurance. See New Jersey’s Charity Care Program: Finding the Answers on Charity Care (temporarily removed) and Can Charity Care Help Me With My Hospital Bills?
Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) can sometimes provide medical care with costs on a sliding scale related to your income and ability to pay. See Roster of FQHCs (from the New Jersey Primary Care Association).
The New Jersey Workability program provides Medicaid coverage for people with significant disabilities as long as they are doing at least some part-time work. This program has higher income and resource thresholds than other Medicaid programs. For more information, see DiscoverAbility / NJ WorkAbility (from the NJ Department of Human Services).
Some workers with work-related health insurance who lose their jobs may be able to hold on to their work health insurance for a limited time under a law known as COBRA. This usually involves paying higher insurance premiums. For more information on how COBRA works, see Continuation of Health Coverage — COBRA (from the (from the US Department of Labor).
Low-income families with children may qualify for NJ FamilyCare.
See our Health Care section more general information on health care benefits. Please be aware that many changes are coming for some of these health care programs, so you should check back for updated information.
The information in this article is not legal advice. It is only intended to provide a very brief overview of the laws and programs mentioned, which have additional requirements and exceptions. You should seek legal counsel to obtain answers to any particular questions.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.