What Are Your Rights at Work after a Cancer Diagnosis?

by Amy Beck

Cancer.  The word alone evokes strong emotions.  A cancer diagnosis affects everyone differently.  Many people wonder how they will manage treatment and work.  They ask themselves: What do I tell my boss?  Should I take time off work for treatment?  How will I pay my bills?

Importantly, cancer can be considered a disability, meaning an employee who tells his or her employer about a cancer diagnosis is protected from discrimination.  An employee does not have to tell anyone at work about a cancer diagnosis—it is a personal choice.  However, an employee needs to give their employer notice of a cancer diagnosis to receive the protection of state and federal law.

Giving notice also triggers an employer’s duty to engage in what’s called the “interactive process,” which means the employer must work with the employee to determine what the employer can do to accommodate the employee’s disability.

Employees have the right to “reasonable accommodations.”  An accommodation is a modification that allows the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his or her job.  Potential accommodations include time off for treatments or surgeries as well as a modified work schedule.  Whether an accommodation is “reasonable” is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

An employee may also be entitled to a 12-week leave of absence (continuous or intermittent) under the Family and Medical Leave Act if he or she has been employed for over year and the employer has over 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.  State and federal laws may even warrant a longer leave period if the employee can establish the extension is reasonable.

Sadly, sometimes employees being treated for cancer may experience bias or discrimination at work, such as being passed up for a promotion, being paid less than other employees to perform the same job, or even enduring harassing jokes or comments.  It is illegal or an employer to treat qualified, capable employees differently due to their health status.

If your employer is refusing to provide reasonable accommodations or you believe you are being treated differently because of your cancer diagnosis, you should consider doing the following:

  • Consult a qualified discrimination lawyer to give you guidance specific to your situation and to discuss next steps;
  • Make a written complaint to your supervisor or the human resources department; and
  • Document any incidents that seem discriminatory in detail, including time, date, who was present, and anything that was said.

If you feel your rights have been violated, contact us.

Amy Beck is one of our Iowa attorneys, specializing in employment litigation and civil rights.

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