How to Prepare for Extended Time off From Work During a Cancer Journey


As part of its Speaking Out video series, CURE spoke with Joanna Fawzy Morales, Esq., from Triage Cancer, about policies around taking extended time off from work for patients with cancer and their caregivers.


Kristie L. Kahl: We just talked about side effects that can affect somebody's ability to work. So with that, what are patients options if they need to take time off from work?

Joanna Fawzy Morales, Esq.: Well, their options for taking time off work may depend on the benefits that they have available to them at work. So, some employers will provide sick time or vacation time or just general PTO time that pays someone when they need to take days off. But those days off are just about money and about paying you. They don't come with additional legal protections to protect your job if you're taking time off because of a medical condition. And that's why we look to federal law, like the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the FMLA. That does provide that job protection and health insurance protection, if you get your health insurance through your employer. And then there are also state, county and even city laws that provide additional ways to take time off of work and access that job protection. So at Triage Cancer, we have a lot of information about these various laws and programs that might be available to someone to take time off of work.

Kahl: We talked about the patient side of the cancer journey and working, but we all know caregivers are the unspoken hero, and they also might have to take time off to help a loved one. So what are their options?

Morales: The Family and Medical Leave Act is a federal law that does apply when someone needs to take time off work for their own serious medical condition. But it also applies to caregivers who need to take time off work for a spouse, a parent or a child who has a serious medical condition. And unfortunately, that's a pretty limited definition of who you can care for. It's not a sibling or a grandparent or a parent-in-law, even. It's just spouse, parent or child. But for a caregiver who needs to take that time off work, who is caring for a spouse, parent or child. It's actually very helpful because it does provide that job protection, and that health insurance protection. But the downside to the FMLA is that it's unpaid leave. And so most people can't take up to 12 weeks off during the year without having any income coming in. And so, on a practical level, it can sometimes be less helpful. However, there are a handful of states, and they're growing in numbers, as state legislatures try to pass these protections, but they provide paid family leave for caregivers. So states like California and New York and a number of others that have passed legislation to actually provide this paid leave for caregivers as well. So you can tap into the job protection under the FMLA and then access some money through the paid leave through the state programs.

Kahl: We just talked about unpaid and paid leave. So what options are available for families so that they can continue to pay their bills?

Morales: Well for caregivers, in the limited ways, there are paid family leave options. That's one. There are also some programs through the state Medicaid program that if someone qualifies for Medicaid for health insurance, and they need in-home support services that help with activities of daily living like to help getting dressed or grocery shopping, that a caregiver can get paid by the Medicaid program to provide that service. And then in some states, family members can actually get paid as that caregiver as opposed to a professional. So it's one way that someone could replace some of those lost wages if a caregiver is needing to take time off work. But there are some other financial assistance programs out there that can help families deal with the financial burden of a cancer diagnosis. And then for patients who need to take time off work, and who don't have access to paid leave through their employer, they could potentially qualify for disability insurance, which will replace wages for someone who can't work due to their medical condition. And that disability insurance might be available. At the state level, there are a handful of states that provide state disability insurance. And then there are private disability insurance plans that someone might have access to, that they bought, or that their employer offers them. And then there's the two federal long-term disability programs where someone needs to have a medical condition that is expected to last at least a year or longer. And so all of those disability options are things that we talked about on our website, and that we have resources to help understand those options, and then also how to actually apply for those benefits.

Kahl: Can you offer the resources that Triage Cancer has available for our patients?

Morales: Yes, if you go to, you can find a number of resources and lots of different formats, so everything from animated videos to printed guides, and then we also have a legal and financial navigation program where we provide one-on-one assistance to individuals who have questions about insurance or work or finances or any of the other legal or practical issues that can come up after a diagnosis. And all of those programs and services are free.

Transcription edited for clarity and conciseness.

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