Work fulfils a critical financial and emotional need for most cancer survivors. In addition to providing income and important benefits such as health insurance, employment also can be a source of self-esteem. Cancer, however, may create barriers to finding and keeping a job, as well as wreak havoc on the ability to pay bills and to obtain adequate health insurance.
Although most employers treat cancer survivors fairly and legally, some employers - either through outdated personnel policies or an uniformed or misguided supervisor - erect unnecessary and sometimes illegal barriers to survivors' job opportunities. Some survivors encounter problems such as dismissal, failure to be hired, demotion, denial of promotion, denial of benefits, undesirable transfer, and hostility by co-workers. Survivors can best protect themselves from employment discrimination by learning how to advocate for their rights in the workplace.
The Canada Labour Code provides for leave for illness or injury, to all employees who have completed 3 months of consecutive employment with the same employer. Generally, the Code provides protection against dismissal, lay-off, suspension, demotion or discipline because of absence due to illness or injury. An employee is protected for any absence not exceeding 12 weeks. The Code provides job security only. There is no provision for paid leave of absence. Some employees, however, may be entitled to cash benefits under the Employment Insurance Act .
You are also protected from discrimination in the workplace due to your illness by the Canadian Human Rights Act.
How to Avoid Discrimination
Provincial and federal anti-discrimination laws help cancer survivors in two ways. First, they discourage discrimination. Second, they offer remedies when discrimination does occur. These laws, however, should be used as a last resort because they can be costly, time consuming, and not necessarily result in a fair solution.
The first step is to try to avoid discrimination. If that fails, the next step is to attempt a reasonable settlement with the employer. If informal efforts fail, however, legal action may be the most effective next step.
If you are looking for a new job, you can take several steps to lessen the chance that you will face discrimination because of your cancer history:
- Do not volunteer that you have or have had cancer unless it directly affects your qualifications for the job. An employer has the right to know only if you can perform the essential duties of the job.
- Do not lie on a job or insurance application. If you are hired and your employer later learns that you lied, you may be fired for your dishonesty. Insurance companies may refuse to pay benefits or cancel your coverage. Federal and provincial laws that prohibit employment discrimination do not guarantee that employers will refrain from asking survivors about gaps in education or employment. If you are asked a question, give an honest (and perhaps indirect) answer that emphasizes your current abilities to do the job.
- Keep the focus on your current ability to do the job in question.
- Apply only for jobs that you are able to do. It is not illegal for an employer to reject you for a job if you are not qualified for it, regardless of your medical history.
- If you have to explain a long period of unemployment during cancer treatment, if possible, explain it in a way that shows your illness is past, and that you are in good health and are expected to remain healthy. One way to de-emphasize a gap in your school or work history because of cancer treatment is to organize your resume by experience and skills, instead of by date.
- Offer your employer a letter from your doctor that explains your current health status, prognosis and ability to work. Be prepared to educate the interviewer about your cancer and why cancer often does not result in death or disability.
- Seek help from a job counsellor or social worker with resume preparation and job interviewing skills. Practice answers to expected questions such as "why did you miss a year of work" or "why did you leave your last job?" Answers to these questions must be honest, but should stress your current qualifications for the job and not past problems, if any, resulting from your cancer experience.
- If you are interviewing for a job, do not ask about health insurance until after you have been given a job offer. Then ask to see the benefits package. Prior to accepting the job, review it to make sure it meets your needs.
- If possible, look for jobs with large employers because they are less likely than small employers to discriminate.
- Do not discriminate against yourself by assuming that cancer leaves you unable to work. Although cancer treatment leaves some survivors with real physical or mental disabilities, many survivors are capable of performing the same duties and activities as they did prior to diagnosis. With the help or your medical team, make an honest assessment of your abilities compared with the mental and physical demands of the job.
How to Enforce Your Legal Rights
If you suspect that you are being treated differently at work because of your cancer history, consider an informal solution before leaping into legal action.
If you face discrimination, consider the following suggestions:
- Use your employer's policies and procedures for resolving employment issues informally.
- If you need some kind of accommodation to help you work, such as flexible working hours to accommodate doctor's appointments, suggest several alternatives to your employer.
- Educate employers and co-workers who might believe that people cannot survive cancer and remain productive workers.
- Ask a member of your health care team (physician, nurse or social worker) to write or call your employer to offer to mediate the conflict and suggest ways for your employer to accommodate you.
- Seek support from your co-workers
If informal solutions fail, consider several steps to protect your right to pursue legal action:
- Keep carefully written records of all job actions, both good and bad.
- Pause before you take legal action. Carefully evaluate your goals. For example, do you want your job back, a change in working conditions, certain benefits, a written apology or something else? Consider the positive and negative aspects of a lawsuit. Potential positive aspects include getting a job and monetary damages, protecting your rights, and tearing down barriers for other survivors. Potential negative aspects include long court battles with no guarantee of victory (some cases drag on for five years or more), legal fees and expenses, stress, a hostile relationship between you and the people you sue, and a reputation in your field as a troublemaker.
- Consider an informal settlement of your complaint. Someone such as a union representative, human resources staff of your company, or social worker may be able to assist as a mediator. Your provincial or federal member of parliament or local media may help persuade your employer to treat you fairly.
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