Despite years spent at medical school learning fancy Latin names for all manner of medical complaints, today's medical practitioners seem increasingly content to excuse employees from work for nondescript reasons of "medical illness", "sickness" or "a medical condition". One-line medical certificates often frustrate employers who are faced with long term patterns of absenteeism.
Of course, the right to take paid leave for a personal illness is enshrined in our federal legislation. Employees should be free to take accrued personal leave where genuinely unwell. However, employers also have the right, under s 107(3) the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), to seek evidence in support of a request for paid personal leave. The evidence that may be required is "evidence that would satisfy a reasonable person" that the employee has a genuine personal illness when seeking to take paid personal leave for that reason.
So what evidence can I ask for?
The Federal Court recently considered whether an employer had a right to seek further medical information following receipt of a series of one-line medical certificates certifying an employee as unfit for work, beginning in July 2012 and continuing at the time of hearing in December 2013: see APIA v Qantas Airways Limited  FCA 32.
When it became apparent that the employee's absence would be ongoing, Qantas, the employer, directed him to provide more information about his medical condition and capacity to return to pre-injury duties.
The Australian & International Pilot's Association (APIA), for the employee, took the position that the Qantas did not have the right to seek this information under the Qantas Airways Limited Flight Crew (Long Haul) Certified Agreement 2005-2006, and rather that medical information to support paid personal leave could be provided in a number of ways, at an employee's election. APIA argued that the medical certificates provided met any evidentiary requirement. When the period to provide a response to Qantas' direction lapsed, Qantas advised that it considered the matter to have become one of a disciplinary nature.
APIA alleged that Qantas had taken adverse action by threatening discipline where the employee had had exercised a "workplace right" to access sick leave by providing a medical certificate in line with the certified agreement.
The Federal Court dismissed the claim. Rares J found that Qantas had no intent to interfere with the employee's right to take paid personal leave. Rather, Qantas had sought more information when it became apparent that there was an "indefinite and uncertain nature about the duration" of the employee's absence.
Rares J also noted that it would be unrealistic to expect Qantas, as an employer, to be left with no right to require sick employees to provide medical information that would allow Qantas to meet its operational needs. Rares J also noted that Qantas' ability to seek medical information should also be informed by its obligations as an employer under applicable work health and safety legislation.
A one line medical certificate may be enough to explain an initial absence from the workplace. However, if there is an extended absence that has the potential to disrupt the business, employers should be able to seek additional medical information. An employer should make any request taking account of applicable industrial instruments, contractual rights and obligations, and employer policies.