By Ellice Switzer Technical Assistance Specialist, EARN
It is estimated that 1,660,290 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2013. Each of those Americans will face a series of challenges that will have lasting effects on their personal as well as professional lives. Many employers are already supporting cancer research and education efforts through initiatives like the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, which will take place this month and raises over $400 million annually. Corporate and small business support of fundraisers like Relay for Life is an important part of the effort against cancer. However, employers can also have a positive impact on this effort by effectively managing disability-related laws, policies and practices that can affect employees who are receiving treatment or recovering from cancer. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 cites “normal cell growth” as a major bodily function, firmly establishing cancer as a condition that can meet the legal definition of a disability, and affording employees with cancer protection under the law. When cancer and treatment-related medical issues substantially limit one or more major life activities, employers may be required to make job-related accommodations at the request of the employee. Much like any significant life change, such as the birth of a child, acquired disability, or change in duty station, the accommodation may be short or long term depending on the needs of the employee. Supportive practices and policies that promote continued engagement with work throughout treatment can result in an economic benefit to the employer, as well as improved treatment access and financial stability for the employee. Flexible Scheduling. In a 2012 report in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers found that working age adults with cancer accounted for approximately 33.4 million days of medical leave annually. Those productivity losses can be directly translated to dollars, underscoring the business benefits of flexible work arrangements and comprehensive return-to-work programs for employees with cancer. Part-time, flexible schedule, and telecommuting options can reduce employer costs while helping to retain valuable employees. When an employee receives a diagnosis of cancer, it may not necessarily require excessive time away from work. In fact, continuing to work can be a critical aspect of a person’s treatment and recovery process. Working can have a positive impact psychologically and emotionally, but more importantly, working and earning a paycheck might enable people to access lifesaving treatments which would otherwise be unaffordable, as well as allow employers to maintain the knowledge and skills inside of their organizations without the costly task of hiring and re-training new personnel. Confidentiality. Employees with cancer may also benefit from Wellness program offerings such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs); the support and understanding of supervisors and coworkers; and knowing that their medical information will remain securely confidential. As with all disabilities covered by Title 1 of the ADA, employee medical information that is obtained for the purposes of granting leave and other types of accommodations must be treated as confidential, kept separately from personnel files, and only disclosed to supervisors and safety/emergency personnel on a need-to-know basis. Information that is voluntarily offered by the employee is not considered protected health information. Regardless of the source, employers should be especially careful to avoid obtaining genetic information, such as the employee’s family history, to avoid violating the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Extended Leave. There are some instances where accommodations for cancer may include extended leave from the job. In those instances, employers may be obligated to extend leave beyond what is typically offered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or their own organizational policies. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does not make recommendations regarding the amount of unpaid leave employers are required to provide under the ADA, extended leave as an accommodation should be considered on a case-by-case basis when necessary. When jobs are physically demanding, it might be possible to avoid the need for extended leave by providing accommodations to mitigate employee fatigue or mobility difficulties. For example, providing frequent breaks or temporarily reassigning strenuous physical tasks. To learn more about accommodations for individuals with cancer, visit the Job Accommodation Network. The EEOC has recently issued guidelines for employers on cancer and the ADA, which outline some of the many ways that the ADA offers protections for individuals managing cancer, its treatment, and side effects. The guidelines also contain specific examples of scenarios that employers may encounter when seeking to support and accommodate an employee with cancer. This includes an important reminder that an employer may not ask questions regarding the type, prognosis, or treatment options related to the diagnosis, unless these questions are necessary in order to effectively accommodate the employee or to grant leave. Given the prevalence of the disease, being prepared to support employees who are diagnosed with cancer is a business imperative. Reducing turnover associated with illness and disability will have a positive impact on employee morale, the organization’s bottom line, and outcomes for the employee who is ill.