Cancer-Based Workplace Discrimination Persists Despite Disability Law, Study Finds

Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2009 have not eliminated instances of workplace discrimination against employees with cancer, according to a recently published study.
Published Online: April 19, 2017
Christina Mattina
Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2009 have not eliminated instances of workplace discrimination against employees with cancer, according to a recently published study, but oncologists can offer important input to help workers and employers agree on reasonable accommodations at work.
The landmark ADA law passed in 1990 offered legal recourse for Americans facing disability-based discrimination in the workplace—from hiring to harassment to termination. However, it did not cover employees once their cancer went into remission, so a worker experiencing discrimination based on long-term effects of their previous cancer could not file a complaint under the ADA. In 2009, the law changed to include employees whose disabilities are well-managed or in remission, as long as the impairment “substantially limits a major life activity” while active.
A new study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice investigated the number of allegations filed both before and after the ADA amendments by employees with a history of cancer as well as the types of allegations and the proportion that were found to have merit in court. It used data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to gather a sample of 1209 employees who filed claims from 2001 to 2008, and 1291 who filed from 2009 to 2011.
The researchers found that employees were more likely to file allegations concerning employment terms (like denying promotions or forcing retirement) or workplace relations (such as harassment or intimidation) after the amendments went into effect. Meanwhile, the other 3 categories of allegations—hiring, reasonable accommodation, and termination—did not change significantly between the 2 periods.
Similarly, they found that courts were more likely to find allegations about employment terms to have merit after the amendments were enacted, while findings of merit for the other 4 categories remained steady.
According to the study authors, their results showed that employees with a history of cancer continued to file allegations under the ADA at the same pace or higher after the law was amended, which they said was consistent with the findings of prior studies on workplace challenges for those with cancer. For example, employers and coworkers may become frustrated at the patient’s reduced productivity or missed time due to their illness, and patients can feel isolated in the face of cancer-related stigma.
An important opportunity for improvement is in workplace accommodations, as previous research has indicated that workers and employers have a hard time agreeing on these adjustments to an employee’s schedule or duties due to a “discrepancy in expectations.” This is an area where the oncology care team “can play an important role and would be a welcomed addition,” according to the researchers. Oncologists have the knowledge needed to contribute to effective workplace accommodations as they can provide an informed description of the patient’s capabilities and symptom burden and help all parties agree on reasonable expectations.
“The status quo regarding cancer and work is insufficient to meet the needs of certain employees and employers despite the ADA Amendments Act,” the study authors concluded. “Patients would benefit from proactive involvement of the oncology care team.”

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