Cancer and the workplace

Cancer disrupts the normalcy of a person’s life—simple tasks like renewing a driver's license, the safety of waking up healthy in the morning, or the routine of working 9-5 take on a new normal. Keeping employment becomes a top priority for people diagnosed with cancer. In addition to making new goals and reassessing what is and isn't important in life, finding and/or keeping steady employment is necessary for preventing other fallouts from occurring.

Livestrong.com has a section entitled Employment Law and Cancer in which they explicitly write, "once you tell your employer about your health condition, your disability cannot be used against you." While this is true and could add a sense of comfort, employees should still remain weary of possible loopholes and always plan for unexpected events.

Joseph Wells was a contractor at a major shipping company at the time he was diagnosed with a variant of thyroid cancer. Over an 18 month period, Wells claims to have only missed one day of work, even after multiple surgeries. Mr. Wells outlined that after his surgeries, the work he performed did not suffer as a result of the cancer and his responsibilities such as, "completing shipping, setup and scheduling for retrofitting of shipping computers" were never compromised. Three weeks after his surgery, Wells was let go by the company and says he was not given any proper notice or reasoning for the termination.

Granted, what Joseph Wells endured during his time at this popular shipping company is one specific incident, employees everywhere need to be aware of what could happen to their job when their life is disrupted by a cancer diagnosis. Proper preparation for any outcome is the best way an employee can guard themselves against the unknown.

Livestrong.com has devised a list of points employees should consider before discussing their medical health with their employer:

  • When, how and what to tell your employer
  • Specific information you do and do not want to share
  • Your employer's possible reactions and your response
  • Questions your employer may ask and how you want to respond
  • Whether you want a "witness" with you when you have this discussion
  • Whether you want someone else, such an your union representative, to talk to your employer for you

Speaking with your employer about your medical health needs is serious and takes careful consideration from the beginning. Being prepared for any and all possible consequences is the best way to prepare yourself for the possible battles ahead. The overarching regulations that would most likely apply to the majority of individuals include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

As Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance outlines, "if an employee immediately notifies his employer upon hearing of a serious illness, and the possible need for FMLA, the employer may not, as a matter of law, use that information against him. If the worker is subsequently fired, the employer could face a myriad of lawsuits." As it pertains to excused absences, Mr. Schrage explains they, "would be covered by either of the acts mentioned above, or possibly by company policy…if job performance has deteriorated and is well documented, it is within the rights of the employer to terminate the worker." It is imperative to understand that different states have their own laws, especially when it comes to terminating an employee without explanation."

If you live in an employment-at-will state, such as Georgia or Iowa, employers are allowed to terminate employees without cause. But there are many exceptions, and a medical issue is one of them. However, this is a matter that would have to be litigated by the courts, and the outcome is not guaranteed. Each state has different time limitations as to how long you have to file a wrongful termination claim.

After he was released, Mr. Wells states he had "well over $100k in bills, and loss of insurance," and as a result of this, he "ended up filing bankruptcy, losing my cars, my house—basically everything I had. At one point I was pawning things to get basic food."

When a potentially serious medical condition, like mesothelioma cancer, changes a person's life, they deserve the opportunity to fight the disease without having to worry about their employment during or after treatment. Treating cancer is not only tough on a person's physical and mental state, but their wallet as well. Despite everything that has happened to him, Joseph Wells was still able to learn a lesson from his ordeal at his previous company, and that is too make sure the next place he works provides security for loyal employees. The best thing an employee can do is arm themselves with the knowledge of their state and federal laws so they can not only beat cancer, but save their job too.