Is It Fair? Cancer Victim Let Go Twice For Missing Work During Treatment

May 21, 2012  |  

Cancer is only half the battle Connie Robinson has had to fight in the past three years. Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and experiencing a relapse in 2010, the Virginia resident says she has been let go from two jobs due to her illness and now she’s struggling to pay bills.

Before her diagnosis, Robinson was promoted to employment specialist for an organization in the Richmond area in 2008. Things were going great for the woman who felt she had finally landed her “dream job,” but in October of the following year she felt a lump and was informed it was cancerous. Interestingly, Robinson, who has a strong family history of cancer, was more worried about her career than her health.

“I didn’t know why, but I was really concerned about my job. I was worried I was going to lose my job,” she told WTVR.com.

Though the treatment was successful, Robinson’s worst fear came true when she was fired from her job during her final week of chemotherapy. In a severance letter, Robinson was informed that her time allotted under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had run out. According to federal law, employers are required to provide employees job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons including personal or family illness. Robinson’s letter stated she was allowed twelve calendar weeks of unpaid leave in a rolling 12-month period, and by December 14, 2009, she had exhausted all available days.

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

Though her job had been given to someone else, Robinson’s 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 but history repeated itself when in May 2010, Robinson felt another lump. After surgery and chemotherapy, she was declared cancer-free by the fall of that year. But when she was ready to return to work, there was no position for her.

Employment attorney Harris Butler says laws provide minimal protection for employees, especially in cases of temporary positions.

“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.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers some protection for those who 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. Both ADA and FMLA allow you to appeal a firing if you feel you’ve been discriminated against because of your illness. Under FMLA  you have 300 days or 10 months to appeal, ADA only gives you 180 days. Butler says it can be hard to go through the process while you’re fighting a life-threatening disease and Robinson is a testament to that, as she missed the deadlines for appeal. Now she spends her days trying to find new employment.

Although Robinson says she felt guilty at first for undergoing chemo treatment, she now wants to remind other cancer patients of what’s important.

“Go through your treatment, fight through the cancer, and then fight for your life,” she said.

Hopefully Robinson wins this battle too.

What do you think about her situation? Was she let go fairly?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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