About Disability Benefits

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Many benefits for employees now include provisions to cover and provide financial assistance in the case of an unforeseen event that causes disability. These plans are meant to go beyond medical insurance, by providing for work income lost due to an employee's inability to perform their regular work, and can vary considerably with respect to the period covered.

It is important to distinguish anti-discrimination criteria for being a member of a "legally protected" group (such as the obese, in some U.S. state jurisdictions) from criteria of eligibility for company or governmental disability benefits (e.g., in virtue of being obese). Being protected from employment discrimination does not entail entitlement to disability benefits on the same basis.

Also, it must be stressed that disability benefits generally relate to sudden, unexpected disablement that prevents performance of one's job, rather than benefits for chronic, pre-existing disabilities-apart from company or government-mandated policies and regulations accommodating the disabled employee, e.g., handicapped parking and access ramps.

To avoid confusion, it is advisable to distinguish "disability benefits" from "disability accommodation" as well as from anti-discrimination "disability protections".

Disability benefits are financial and other forms of assistance provided by the employer to employees and their dependents or by government programs, for those who meet the criteria defining specific, eligible and covered disabilities. Eligibility criteria can vary dramatically from company to company, region to region and country to country. For example, smoking and obesity may be treated as disabilities in some jurisdictions, British Columbia, being one. Besides healthcare, dental and life insurance benefits, many employers are now also offering disability benefits to attract and retain talent. While most people tend to think that disabilities are typically caused by freak accidents, most long-term absences are actually due to terminal and other serious illnesses. Hence, disability benefits are a form of insurance that help to replace a portion of the income should the employee become unable to work.

However, the form of these benefits largely depends on the employer and the size of the organization. For example, there are both short-term and long-term disability benefits. Alternatively, while some employers pay 100 percent of disability insurance premiums and give the benefits to all eligible employees, others offer disability insurance benefits at discounted group rates and give eligible employees the option to select their preferred coverage. Another option is for employers to offer short-term disability insurance for free, and give eligible employees the option to choose long-term disability insurance at discounted group rates.

Unlike health insurance plans, there are no "standard" disability benefits, as it largely depends on the organization and the nature of the work. For example, some common disabilities that may or may not be covered include back injuries, mental illness, stress-related disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, and severe migraine headaches.

Unfortunately for blue collar and service workers who are the most likely to suffer serious injuries, they are also the ones least likely to be offered disability benefits by their employers, particularly when smaller organizations. The level of income replacement as well as the length of coverage, especially for long-term disability benefits, also differs from one employer to another.

Moreover, although in some jurisdictions an employer may not be allowed to discriminate against smokers when it comes to hiring, it does not follow that whatever legal protection from discrimination a smoker is provided will automatically support any kind of claimed right to disability benefits or even disability accommodation (such as a workplace smoking room or smoke break), even if smoking is classified as a medical condition, e.g., a physical addiction.
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