Requesting Job Accommodations During Treatment

Approximately one-third of all Americans will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes, and many will continue to work throughout treatment.

If you're worried about managing disease symptoms and treatment side effects while managing the challenges of a job, be assured that there are ways to request accommodations that can work for both you and your employer.

Defining 'disability'

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers cannot discriminate against workers with disabilities, and must provide reasonable accommodations such as time off and flexible hours when cancer is a disability. The gray area lies in determining what is meant by a "disability," since the ADA's definition is broad and not associated with any specific medical conditions.

Cancer itself is not considered a disability by law; however, it is considered a disability when the disease or its treatment causes "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities," such as caring for oneself, walking, performing manual tasks or working. Thus, even if cancer is caught and treated early, it still may lead to some impairment - depression, perhaps - that may persist and impinge upon your job.

Asking for reasonable accommodation

Depending on your comfort level and relationship with your supervisor, you may choose to have a one-on-one conversation, or do it by phone or in a note.

It is your responsibility to inform your employer that you will need an accommodation to continue performing "essential job functions" and be an equal player in the workplace.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the ADA, advises that you write a formal letter requesting the accommodation. That way if any misunderstandings arise about when or whether you notified your employer, you will have a written record.

In your initial request:

  • State that you have a disability and ask for reasonable job accommodations.
  • Specify your job difficulties and propose some solutions.
  • Ask the employer to suggest ideas as well and to reply within a reasonable time frame.
  • Submit back-up documentation from a medical professional; your employer has the right to ask for more medical information if what you provide isn't deemed sufficient.

Go to the federally supported Job Accommodation Network to see suggestions for drafting your letter.

In some cases, companies may have policies to follow and their own forms to fill out. If for some reason you can't make the request for accommodations yourself, a relative, friend or a medical professional can do it on your behalf.

Your confidentiality

By law, your employer cannot reveal your illness to co-workers and must keep confidential any medical information they learn about you.

However, disclosure may be permitted to managers who need to help arrange your job accommodations, to safety personnel who might be called upon for emergency aid, to insurer/workers' compensation representatives or to those checking ADA compliance.

Types of accommodations

Because every job and individual is different, accommodations are handled on a case-by-case basis. Here are some examples of reasonable accommodations under the ADA that you may need and request:

  • Medical leave
  • Flexible or part-time schedule
  • Permission to work from home
  • Consent to call or e-mail, during work hours, doctors and others involved in your care
  • Periodic breaks for rest
  • Reduced physical exertion
  • Job restructuring and/or modification
  • Provision of a scooter or other mobility assistance
  • Improved building access and parking close to your work area
  • Modified office temperatures

See these accommodation examples from the EEOC with sample situations and remedies.

Obligation of employer

Employers are not obligated to provide adjustments that would cause "undue hardship" – that is, that would be considerably expensive or disruptive to their businesses.

The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, so your protections may be fewer at the smallest businesses. However, tax credits are available to these small businesses to assist them in complying with the ADA.

If a disagreement should occur, and you believe you have been discriminated against because of your illness or disability, you should file a complaint within 180 days with the EEOC. The agency may recommend mediation to settle the dispute. Employers cannot retaliate against an employee for filing a charge with the EEOC.

A goal of the ADA is to keep people with disabilities productive members of the workforce.

Even if you think occasional fatigue or nausea caused by cancer drugs don't qualify as a disability under the ADA, it still is worth asking your employer for some down time or perhaps a day each week to work from home. You both will derive benefits from that situation.