Would You Fire Someone for Having Cancer?

A tough decision results in the firing of a cancer-stricken teacher in North Carolina.
Business Writers
February 28, 2012

A North Carolina woman has been fired from her job as an assistant teacher because the school system says cancer treatments caused her to miss too many days of work.

In January 2010, Donna Sotomayor took leave from River Bend Elementary School in Raleigh to receive six chemotherapy treatments and 33 radiation treatments after being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She had been employed by the school since 2004.

Even after returning to work in October 2010 Sotomayor continued to miss work due to infection and other problems. About a year later, in November 2011, doctors delivered bad news: the cancer had spread to her spine. She needed to miss more work for treatment.

About a month later, in December 2011, school principal Lois Hart recommended Sotomayor be fired for excessive absences.

“They said they need someone there who was reliable," Sotomayor told North Carolina's WRAL radio station. "Apparently, I wasn't reliable. I was sick.”

In a meeting Sotomayor described as "business-like" and "very detached," the school system's human resources department offered her the option of resigning or being fired. (She lacked about 50 work hours to qualify for Family Medical Leave.)

She refused to resign, so Wake County public schools fired her. Her termination letter, signed by assistant superintendent Stephen Gainey, read: "While sympathetic to the extenuating circumstances of your excessive absences, it is in the best interests of the school system to terminate your employment."

“It's just one of these situations I wish never came across my desk,” Gainey later said. He declined to discuss Sotomayor's case specifically, citing privacy concerns, but said of the issue: “The problem becomes, if you start holding jobs indefinitely, you wind up with, you’d be amazed how long, how quickly you’d get holes all over your school system. It is a tough thing to manage.”

The school system then claimed that by its calculations Sotomayor had been overpaid and deducted $1,400 from her short-term disability account.

Sotomayor has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Labor Department.

"Cancer is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act," she said. "I have rights."

Under the ADA, an employer must accommodate an employee with cancer but not if it "would result in undue hardship."

A fact sheet about cancer and the ADA explains: "Undue hardship means that providing the reasonable accommodation would result in significant difficulty or expense.... An employer also is not required to provide the reasonable accommodation that an individual wants."

How would you handle this situation?