Be the Boss Over Cancer

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For cancer patients, it can feel like double jeopardy. Besides dealing with health issues, you may encounter some legal problems on your route to recovery. Many legal problems reported by cancer patients center on employment. Issues can include a boss not accommodating you as federal law mandates. But other legal issues can be problematic, too, including housing problems, credit issues, guardianship of the minor children and health insurance hassles.

Be Proactive on the Job
If you decide to divulge to your employer that you have cancer (and, by law, that is entirely up to you), come up with a business plan for yourself. It should communicate to your bosses exactly how you plan to handle your job during and after your cancer treatment.

Before creating your plan, get a copy of your employer's policies and procedures for leaves of absence, flex time and other accommodations so your plan "fits." In creating the plan, some cancer patients may realize it's too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, and make changes. But the other purpose of creating such a plan is to make clear to your employer that you want to continue working and that you will fulfill the job description and duties, despite your illness.

Start with your job description, then tell your bosses how you will still accomplish what you used to do, and what help you will need to do that. Don't simply say you need to be accommodated. Tell your boss in great detail how and when. Taking such an organized approach may influence your employer to toe the letter of the law, accommodating you in your needs.

Be aware, experts say, that if you are a first-time cancer patient you are likely to receive more support and cooperation that someone who is going through the illness for the second time, or more. Attorneys who specialize in this field say that employers in general become less sympathetic the second or third time around. It may seem contrary to human nature, but what could be happening is the employers are getting anxious about their bottom lines.

Be aware, too, that very few plaintiffs prevail in court when claiming their employers aren't following the Americans with Disabilities Act and accommodating their job needs as a person with cancer. A study published in 2001 in the Human Resource Management journal reviewed six years of appellate court and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and found most plaintiffs who sue are unsuccessful.

Educate Yourself
If you are like most cancer patients, you have already educated yourself about the best treatments, physicians and facilities. Now, you can apply that same proactive approach to learning about your legal rights as a cancer patient—in relation to job issues as well as other issues such as housing or custody of your children should you become too ill to care for them.

Among the websites recommended by several legal experts that have sound, usable information are:

Workplacefairness.org, at http://www.workplacefairness.org, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting employee rights. Here, you will find information on your workplace rights, including protection against discrimination.

LawHelp.org, http://www.lawhelp.org, provides basic legal information to people on low incomes. The website has been built by Pro Bono Net, a New York-based nonprofit organization, and a host of other legal aid associations. Here, you will find links to resources in every state, on a state-by-state basis.

Basic information about how the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you against discrimination is found on the U.S.Equal Employment Opportunity Commission site, http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/cancer.html.

If You Feel You are Being Discriminated Against

Although people are generally more enlightened about cancer than they were a decade ago, misinformation and misconceptions are still common. If you feel discriminated against, take action sooner rather than later:

  • Write down what happened when, making the notes detailed and precise, reporting incidents as factually and objectively as possible. If appropriate, save, print or record pertinent voice-mail or e-mail messages.
  • Know your rights. Before you do anything at work, look into whether you are protected by the federal American with Disabilities Act or your state's Fair Employment Law. Often, state laws offer more protection than ADA. Locate contact information for your state's Fair Employment Practices Agency at http://triagecancer.org/resources/stateresources/.

Among your options:

  • Talk to your supervisor or human resources manager. You might solve the problem easily with a meeting or two. If any coworkers recently dealt with a cancer diagnosis, find out if they experienced discrimination and how they handled the situation.
  • Get legal advice. In some situations, it may be appropriate to meet with an attorney and even take legal action. Sometimes, a decision that you make may affect your ability to take legal action in the future, so meeting with an attorney now can help you make an educated decision.
    • Contact the National Cancer Legal Services Network (NCLSN).  The NCLSN promotes increased availability of free legal services programs so that people affected by cancer may focus on medical care and their quality of life.  Visit www.nclsn.org for more information. 
    • Talk to the Patient Advocate Foundation. This nonprofit organization can connect you with an attorney or case manager who can help you try to resolve cancer-related job-retention issues. Visit http://www.patientadvocate.org for more information.

Finding Additional Legal Resources
Think local, not national, experts advise. Bar associations, especially in larger cities, typically coordinate pro bono work. Start by calling your local bar association or getting the contact information for your region on line or through the telephone directory. Tell them exactly your issue and ask for a referral.

The bar associations may have special projects or sections that can help you. For instance, the New York City Bar Association has a cancer advocacy project, in which volunteer attorneys provide 30-minute consults for cancer patients with work discrimination issues. For more information, click here: http://www.abcny.org/CityBarFund/CommunityOutreachLawProgram.htm#caring

Most bar associations also offer programs allowing you to talk to a lawyer for a half hour or an hour at a reduced priced. For instance, a half hour might be $30. By the end of the time period, you would have enough information to decide if you need more help or if you need to hire a lawyer.

Across the country, communities also have legal aid societies that can help. These organizations are also called legal services. Often the name of the location is included, such as Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. Nearly every such organization or society has its own guidelines on whom is eligible, so don't assume if you don't meet eligibility at one you won't at another.

Another way to find programs of free or reduced price legal advice is to check out http://www.lawhelp.org. You can click on a state by state listing, and pick your problem, such as work, housing, family, bankruptcy, disability, immigration.When you go to the state sites, the available resources include specific information about what's available and for whom.

Success Story

As bleak as a cancer-related legal problem may seem-and as patchwork as the free or reduced-cost legal help can seem to be—success stories abound. The New York Legal Assistance Group recently helped a woman, who has since passed away, who came to them with ovarian cancer that spread. She was working in the education department of New York Public Schools and she was overwhelmed with medical bills. The insurance plan didn't cover all of her medical treatment fees. The NYLAG found out the woman, a single mother, could qualify for Medicaid. Her representative also persuaded the hospital to forgive the unpaid part of her bill. A public program was found for her children who weren't on an insurance plan. They helped her draw up a will, making guardian provisions for her children. Her retirement fund, was minimal, so the NYLAG obtained public assistance for her when she stopped working. They helped her keep creditors at bay, too.

SOURCES: David McDaniel, attorney on staff at the New York Legal Assistance Group, New York, NY, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in social justice and represents low income clients; Allison McDermott, deputy director, Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit organization that works with nonprofit legal organizations nationwide for justice to poor and moderate-income people, New York City; Melissa Rodgers, directing attorney, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, California.