THE BLOG

Fired Because of Illness

You know the company you work for, and if you have been there long enough you have seen how it supports or does not support its employees in difficult times. There is so much you are dealing with when you are newly diagnosed, perhaps have your advocate take on some of the research responsibility.
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If you clicked on the title thinking, "Employers cannot fire employees due to illness -- we have laws in place to protect people in our society," half of your thought is correct. We do have laws meant to protect the vulnerable people in our society. The question you need to ask yourself is, what other laws have you seen "massaged" over the years to fit what a person/company/industry wants to do?

Released, let go, fired; there are so many ways to forget a person's livelihood is dependent on those casual words. It's only business, right?

The Law and the Loopholes

I suppose I've lived amongst the cancer and rare illness communities for too long. I really was idealistic before the stories started rolling in on this topic. We have the Americans with Disabilities Act and (FMLA). Large companies must hold a position for you if the unthinkable happens and you require time away from your job due to illness or injury. It's usually a simple matter of talking with human resources and filling out paperwork.

The reality is a company cannot say they are firing you because of your illness.

  • It does not mean that all of a sudden your once stellar employment reviews won't suddenly shift to improvement plans that ultimately lead to your dismissal.

  • It does not mean that if a position is held for you, that position won't be out of state, away from your health care team, and without transfer compensation to afford the move.
  • It does not mean if you use FMLA, that management and co-workers will not make your situation so emotionally unbearable there's no way for you to stay.
  • It does not mean that in "at will" states there has to be any reason given to let a person go after they return from treatment and are trying to rebuild their life.
  • It does not mean a company will even allow you to return to work without a full medical clearance from your doctor saying you have absolutely no restrictions.
  • The truth is that illness changes life in ways you might never expect. People rallying around you at diagnosis may discontinue their rally the longer it takes you to heal. We live in an instant world, and illness does not always have a set timeline.

    The Character of a Company

    Before I go any further, it is important to mention there are many companies who will stand by their employee through difficult times and work with them to successfully continue employment. I applaud these companies and challenge others to follow in their exemplary footsteps. Following the laws in place, as these companies do, is exactly how our laws were intended to work. Our society should recognize these companies for valuing their employees as people, and not just numbers.

    Now for the admonishments: From numerous patient stories, without a company clearly stating/documenting an employee was let go because of their illness, there is no real recourse. The companies that are skirting the intended meaning of our laws, through loopholes or side steps, are rarely held accountable for what they are doing, and their practice continues.

    The very sad state of affairs is that it does not matter how long you've faithfully worked for a company; there are numerous bottom line reasons a company may wish to release someone who is ill:

    • Insurance costs for the company rise with the exorbitant health care costs associated with catastrophic illness.

  • Hiring a temporary employee and training them to do your job is a large unexpected expense a company must bear.
  • There are no guarantees you will be able to return to your job with the same capacity you once had, and that can be difficult for a company to juggle.
  • What you need to know

    There are numerous groups and advocates who can help you navigate how to handle your employment situation should you become ill.

    • As a first step, check with your hospital or clinic's social worker for support and resources.

  • Discuss with your advocates the realistic options for your return to employment, including energy levels and capabilities.
  • Also, take the time to talk with your doctor about what you can medically expect so you have an idea of the assistance you may require in the long run.
  • You may also consider reaching out to groups (as listed below) that focus specifically on illness and employment. These organizations have walked the path you are about to embark on, and it is useful to pull from their knowledge so there are no accidental missteps.
  • Finally, before talking to your employer, take all the information you have gathered and discuss your best approach with trusted people in your life.
  • You know the company you work for, and if you have been there long enough you have seen how it supports or does not support its employees in difficult times. There is so much you are dealing with when you are newly diagnosed, perhaps have your advocate take on some of the research responsibility.

    Here is a list of resources to investigate: