By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen an increase in the number of cancer-related complaints over the past few years.
Ten years ago, there were less than 450 cancer-related claims. Last year, it topped out at nearly 1000.
Part of the spike may have resulted from cancer being specifically included as a disability under the American with Disabilities Act, but it could also be heightened awareness of rights among employees.
“If you’re being asked, ‘do you have cancer, how many days of work have you missed,’ they could be trying to screen you out,” says Shannon Powers, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
She says the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act prohibits employers from firing or not hiring someone because they have a disability.
“The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act defines disability as anything that significantly limits one’s normal life activities and it can very well include cancer,” she says. “You do have to be able to perform the job, but your qualifications are really the only important thing.”
“When people are first diagnosed, focusing on what type of treatment they might to have is a top priority,” says Joanna Morales, a cancer rights attorney and CEO of Triage Cancer. “But they also focus on understanding how they balance treatment in terms of the side effects and the schedule of treatment along with their work life.”
Some deal with a cancer diagnosis by going part-time at work or taking a leave of absence. But others decide to work through treatment and choose not to disclose their medical condition to their employer. Either way, it’s a personal decision and it’s not required unless the employee wants a reasonable accommodation at work under the ADA, PHRA or some type of medical leave. But how much an employee tells their employer is their choice.
“They don’t need to disclose their exact diagnosis,” says Morales. “They only need to disclose enough to show they are eligible.”
Morales says accommodations at work can include simple things, like moving a desk closer to a door to help with fatigue, adjusting a work schedule to accommodate treatment schedules or getting a special chair.
“More than half of accommodations don’t actually cost the employers anything, and roughly 30 percent cost the employer less than $500,” says Morales.
Powers says employers can limit claims by being proactive in training managers.
“Employers should look at what the employee bring to the workplace, how they do their job,” says Powers, noting that “disability” discrimination falls just under race and retaliation with regard to volume of claims. “As people become more aware of their rights and become more educated, they know ‘my employer can’t treat me poorly because I have a disability.’”
For more info on workplace discrimination in Pennsylvania, visit: www.phrc.state.pa.us
For information at the federal level, visit: www.eeoc.gov