Reasonable Disability Leave or Not?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors disability leave:

My wife came down with shingles and started suffering from post shingle pain. The HR person at her work told her she had 30 days to return to work or be terminated. The company has short term disability up to 12 weeks, but they aren’t putting her on disability, is this procedure right?

Signed, Frustrated on behalf of my wife

Dear Frustrated on behalf of my wife:

For situations like this we always refer people to the department of labor in their state, since laws vary from place to place. You may also find some assistance about this issue from sites such as Or, from

Some general comments: The laws of your state may allow disability leave to be applied differently in different cases–or your wife’s employer may not come under the law. It may also be that your wife has used considerable time, and that has been deducted from standard disability leave, so as to encourage her to return to work, or allow them to replace her.Their perspective, though harsh sounding, is reality-based, in that they are paying for a salary even though she is not working.

In addition, if they hadn’t needed someone in her work, they wouldn’t have hired her in the first place–so something is not being done as it should be while she is gone. Let me also note this: The fact that someone in HR says it, doesn’t make it carved in stone. My experience has been that HR sections see things in a very pragmatic way–and many of them are not at a level in the organization where they feel empowered to do more than apply rules. It is usually the executive level that can make, break and interpret rules. And by executive level I mean the boss a level or two higher than your wife’s supervisor, and the steps above that as well, if necessary.

Your wife may want to write a letter directly to someone at a higher level, routed through her boss, to ask for support in this matter. If she can show that she has been a valuable employee and has not abused sick time in the past, they might intercede on her behalf. This is one of those times when work is like a bank account–you pay in, in your good performance and behavior—so you can take out, later in the form of help and support when you need it! If she has been a valued employee they may want to ensure she is retained. If she has had problems or taken off work a lot over time, they might not be so inclined. Her physician will certainly be prepared to write a letter about her pain and the impact it has.

Shingles pain is miserable, far beyond what anyone who has never suffered it realizes. Sadly, it may never go away. Many sufferers must work, raise a family, do housework and live as normally as possible in spite of it. Thus, your wife will need to find ways to manage it if she ever wants to return to work. Pain medication is the primary way. But many find they can do some mental pain management as well. And, some say the busier they are and the more they use their bodies, the more manageable the pain is. I have a friend who says she walks to alleviate pain she once thought would keep her from walking any long distance ever again. She has used her fitness program and improved dietary regimen to help her mental well-being, improve her appearance and deal with the pain all at the same time. Your wife’s physician can help her develop a program like that as well. Best wishes in your efforts to help your wife work with her employer in this matter.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.