Understanding Employment Rights for Patients, Caregivers After a Cancer Diagnosis


CURE® spoke with a cancer rights attorney about employment rights and how patients and their caregivers can learn more to ensure they are being protected.

A cancer diagnosis, whether it be for a patient or their caregiver, can affect one’s day-to-day life. One facet of life, in particular, that can be affected by a diagnosis is work – whether that may be needing extended time off or changing the way one works.

With the added concern of paying for cancer treatment, it is key for patients to also understand their rights when it comes to employment.

CURE® spoke with Joanna Morales, Esq., a cancer rights attorney, author, speaker and CEO of Triage Cancer, about employment rights and how patients and their caregivers can learn more to ensure they are being protected.

CURE: How can a cancer diagnosis affect a patient, as well as their caregiver, when it comes to employment?

Morales: When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is very likely to have some impact on their work situation, whether they need time off work or help managing side effects at work. But there are laws to help someone manage a cancer diagnosis and their job. For example, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), is a federal law that applies to state and local government employers, as well as private employers with 15 or more employees. In order to use the ADA protections, you not only have to work for the right employer, but also have to be a qualified individual for the job, meaning that you can perform the essential functions of the job, but also have a disability within the ADA’s definition of disability. The ADA defines disability as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially impacts a major life activity, such as breathing, walking, talking, or thinking. . So, when we look to see if someone has a disability under the ADA, we look at each individual on a case-by-case basis. But generally, individuals with a cancer diagnosis usually qualify for protection under the ADA. While the ADA provides protection against discrimination and access to reasonable accommodations for individuals diagnosed with cancer, it also protects caregivers from discrimination at work.

CURE: Under this, what is an example of reasonable accommodations?

Morales: Reasonable accommodations are any change in the workplace that can help someone either continue to do their job, take time off, or return to work. Reasonable accommodations can be just about anything that is helpful to an employee who's eligible for protections. Reasonable accommodations in the context of a cancer diagnosis can be things like changing your schedule, or changing where you're working to something like telecommuting, or maybe working from a different location. But it can also be things like using technology or changing an employer's policies to make it easier for someone to do their job.

CURE: Can you also discuss the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and how that helps patients and loved ones affected by a cancer diagnosis?

Morales: The FMLA is another federal law that protects employees who work for a private employer with 50 or more employees, or a local, state, or federal government. The FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, but job-protected leave to care for their own serious medical condition or as a caregiver of a spouse, parent, or child (with a serious medical condition).

CURE: How can patients determine if they qualify for these programs through their employer?

Morales: Well, if someone is looking to find out if they qualify for protection under any law, they can certainly contact us at Triage Cancer, and we can provide information about what laws might be available to someone. But if we're talking about someone who wondering what they have access to specifically at their job, they can also talk to someone at their job who handles employee benefits. So, if you have a human resources (HR) department, that's a place to start. This is also the type of information that would be in your employee manual. Or, if you work for a smaller employer that doesn't have anyone who works in human resources or a written manual, the person who you turn in your timesheet to might be someone who can answer your questions.

CURE: Can you discuss the decision for a person to disclose their diagnosis to an employer and what goes into that decision?

Morales: For employees who are concerned about protecting the privacy of their medical condition at work, there are laws that provide protections. Generally, you don't need to share information with your employer about your medical condition. However, if you want to access certain protections, you might need to share enough information about your medical condition in order to access those protections. For example, if you need a reasonable accommodation, you have to share enough information about why you're actually eligible for that accommodation. And, the same thing goes for medical leave.

If someone is concerned about sharing information with their employer, they don't necessarily have to share a cancer diagnosis to get access to those protections. Most of the time, the need for an accommodation or the need for leave is not based on the cancer diagnosis itself. It's based on side effects from treatment. And often you can talk about those side effects from treatment without ever tying them back to a cancer diagnosis. If that isn't something that you want to disclose to an employer, Triage Cancer actually hasresources on how to access those disclosure protections and protect your privacy in the workplace.

CURE: How can we help patients understand what their employment rights are so they can maintain their job/income and still access care?

Morales: We want people to have the information about all of their employment rights and other options so they can make the best decisions for themselves. We want them to understand their ability to stay at work, if that's what they want, or need to do; their ability to take time off of work and not lose their job; and their ability to return to the workplace if they've been taking time off. And then, certainly, to understand disability insurance options to replace any wages that they've lost while taking time off from work. All of those things really have a huge impact on someone's income and can also impact the financial burden of a cancer diagnosis overall.

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