October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as we consider this disease and how it affects us all, it is helpful to look into the employment protections in place for the one in eight women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives.
In the days following a diagnosis with breast cancer, the worries and fear can be overwhelming, and patients should not need to worry if their employment status is in danger. Thankfully, there are specific protections in place for situations like these. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides certain safeguards for those in positions that make them vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace due to disability, or in the case of breast cancer, severe illness.
The ADA (with the inclusion of the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act or ADAAA) specifies that employers must provide reasonable accommodations for affected employees. While the ADA does not list the specific medical conditions that constitute disabilities, the 2008 amendment helped specify what qualifies as a disability. It states that a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity.
In short, if your healthcare provider can demonstrate that your condition interferes with your basic needs or life in general, then you qualify. Specifically for cancer patients, the ADAAA provides guidance, noting that cancer’s interruption of normal cell growth qualifies as an interference with a “major life activity.”
While this might seem obvious, before the introduction of the ADAAA, this protection was not a given. Healthcare professionals tasked with assisting breast cancer patients with procuring coverage by the ADA were given the near-impossible task of proving that a patient was sufficiently disabled by cancer to need accommodation while still being healthy enough to work in general. In at least one case, a cancer patient was fired for her inability to work as a result of her disease, and when she took it before the courts, lost her case and had to then contend with not only her disease, but the challenges of being unemployed. It’s because of instances like this (specifically Garrett v. Univ. of Ala. at Birmingham Bd. of Trs.) that the ADAAA was established.
What accommodations can you seek?
ADAA guidelines provide flexibility for employers when accommodating an individual battling cancer. The symptoms the patient experiences are the most important factor, and those may vary over time. Some basic accommodations are:
- Flexible work schedules – patients often need to attend appointments with doctors, specialists, and other medical professionals during work hours.
- Remote or work-from-home options – many symptoms of cancer can be debilitating without hindering an employee’s ability to work. The ability to work remotely can provide privacy and comfort during this difficult time while allowing the patient to continue earning a living.
- Air purifiers/alternative cleaning supplies – it’s not uncommon for those undergoing treatment for breast cancer to experience a new sensitivity to certain chemicals, smells, or changes to general air quality.
- Restructuring of job responsibilities – when undergoing treatment or experiencing symptoms of breast cancer, some patients may not be able to perform certain aspects of their job. Employers may consider shifting duties and tailoring a patient’s position during this time.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Breast cancer patients and employers should work together to create an accommodation plan that best suits the needs of both parties.
What if you are diagnosed with breast cancer while you are actively job hunting?
The ADA also states that employers cannot unfairly base eligibility for employment on whether or not a person has a disability. In layman’s terms, that means that employers cannot decide whether or not to hire someone based on stereotypes, prejudices, or misinformation about people with a debilitating illness like breast cancer.
Employers must consider disabled applicants on an individual basis and determine whether their condition, with consideration of the job responsibilities, would endanger either the applicant or others in the workplace. In many cases, cancer patients are quite able to perform duties on the job when given reasonable accommodations. A healthcare professional can help patients by providing them with documentation supporting their ability to work, further protecting patients from unfair discrimination while job-hunting.
A breast cancer diagnosis is frightening enough on its own. Armed with knowledge of your rights and the help of healthcare professionals, your right to work should not be another concern to carry.
For more information on employee protections, see our resources on the FCRA, Pay Equity and More