Woman with cancer said she was laid-off after diagnosis

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – When you’re diagnosed with cancer, your first thought is “Am I going to die?”

But some patients are worried about something else: their job. Some are laid off, losing the coverage and income they need to pay for thousands of dollars in doctor bills. Is it legal?

Connie Robinson contacted CBS 6 News to ask that question.

Robinson should have been on top of the world. She had beaten breast cancer not once, but twice. Sitting in her living room on a spring afternoon, she says she feels like a failure, continually asking herself what she did wrong. [SPECIAL REPORT: Donations, registration down after Komen, Planned Parenthood controversy]

Robinson was upset because she had lost what she called her dream job. It was given to someone else. Now she spends most of her days staring out her front door, depressed and feeling helpless.  She says she loves helping people. It’s one reason why she says she was thrilled about her promotion in 2008 to employment specialist for a local organization.

Work was great, but soon enough, her health was not. In October 2009, Robinson, who has a strong family history of cancer, felt a lump. Soon enough, she was worried about more than her diagnosis. 

“I didn’t know why, but I was really concerned about my job. I was worried I was going to lose my job,” said Robinson.

Her treatment was successful but Robinson’s fear was realized when she was fired from the organization in 2009. Painfully, she received a severance letter during her final week of chemotherapy. 

The letter informed  Robinson her Family Medical Leave Act had run out.

The 1993 federal law requires employers to provide employees job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons including personal or family illness. 

Robinson’s letter states she was allowed 12 calendar weeks of unpaid leave in a rolling 12-month period.  

By December 14, 2009, she had exhausted all available leave granted under the FMLA.

“I worked even when I was sick and it’s like it didn’t matter. You don’t matter,” said Robinson.

Employment attorney Harris Butler says the laws provide minimal protection. Butler says patients have some protection under the FMLA and the ADA– the Americans with Disabilities Act but not enough.

FMLA covers employees working for a business with 50 or more employees. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides patients with some protection if they work for a small business with 15 or more employees. But the coverage lasts for only a certain period of time and Butler says when it expires there are no guarantees.

“If the employer wants to let you go, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it,” said Butler. “It’s really unfortunate.”

Both laws do allow you to appeal a firing.  Under FMLA, if you feel you’ve been discriminated against because of your illness, you have 300 days or 10 months to appeal.

ADA gives you only 180 days – starting from the day you begin to experience problems at work.
Butler admits it can be difficult to start the process while you’re fighting for your life like Robinson was. 

And she missed her window of opportunity.

Despite her dismissal, he says her previous employer encouraged her to re-apply to the non-profit where they received a grant to fund her position. Three months later the non-profit hired her. She was back on her feet.

But in a cruel twist of fate, in May 2010, Robinson felt another lump. She had to undergo surgery and chemo. By the fall of that year, she was cancer-free and ready to come back to work at the non-profit, but she was told she’d been replaced.  “I was blaming myself. What if I hadn’t taken the chemo?” said Robinson.

Her job at the non-profit was a temporary position. And attorney Butler says temporary workers have even less legal protection.  He says FMLA is set up for full time employees.

At her office at St. Mary’s Hospital, Robinson’s oncologist Dr. Susan Schaffer says she knows case after case of patients who say if they miss a day of work, they’re going to get fired. Her response is always the same: do they know you have cancer?

Schaffer says job insecurity is an issue for many of her patients like Robinson. She says it does affect their care.

“They tell me, ‘I’m not coming, Dr. Schaffer, because I cannot pay my bills.’

“I’m like oh my gosh, come. We’ll figure that out how to worry about that part of it,” said Schaffer.

The doctor says she’s written letters to employers to try to help. And because Bon Secours is a charity hospital, it’ll work with patients who are struggling to pay for treatment.

Cancer-free and with her treatment days behind her, Robinson is still looking for another job. 

She wants cancer patients to remember they are what’s most important. 

“Go through your treatment, fight through the cancer, and then fight for your life, said Robinson.”
As for help at the state level, Delegate Jennifer McClellan says not much is available at the state level to help patients.  She says Virginia lets federal law govern in this area.

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