Entering the Workforce
Work is an important part of life. For most people, employment is their sole source of financial security and health insurance. Working can also boost your self-esteem, increase your sense of belonging and provide intellectual rewards. Your experience with cancer may have impacted your career goals. Some survivors feel called to work in nurturing fields and pursue careers in hospitals, schools or nonprofit organizations. Others identify unmet needs within the survivorship community and work to create their own positions.
If you have concerns about whether you’re physically or emotionally able to perform the kind of work you’ve chosen, talk with your healthcare team. The team can help you set realistic expectations and alleviate your anxieties. Unless you have specific physical or mental limitations that affect the type of work you are planning, your cancer history should not affect your ability to get a job. An employer cannot refuse to hire you simply because you are a cancer survivor.
The key to a successful job interview is preparation and honesty. Make sure that your resume is as accurate as possible and that you are qualified for the job in question. If you are found to have lied either on your application or during an interview the employer may dismiss you.
You may want to consider starting your career with a large company. Typically, larger organizations have fewer barriers to health-insurance benefits.
Here are some tips on the job interview process:
- Do not volunteer information about your health history, including your cancer diagnosis. A potential employer has only the right to know if you can perform the essential duties of the job, and cannot ask for personal or confidential information during an interview.
- Be truthful. Never lie on an insurance application. If you do so, insurance companies may refuse to pay your benefits or cancel your policy.
- If you are asked a question that you feel is illegal (regarding your cancer history, for example), give an honest answer that emphasizes your current abilities without discussing your cancer history.
- Always focus on your strengths.
- If your cancer treatment led to gaps in your employment history, potential employers may ask why you didn’t work during those times. The best approach is to explain about your treatment, but focus on the fact that you’re now healthy.
- Ask a job counselor or contact at a cancer support group to practice interviewing skills with you. Focus your role-playing on questions that make you uncomfortable.
- Don’t ask about benefits during your initial interview, but be sure to review the benefits package before you accept a job.
- Be informed of your legal rights.
- Contact other survivors through an online chat room or local support group for employment and interview suggestions
- Resumes do not have to be organized chronologically. Organize your resume around your strengths.
- If you think you will need reasonable accommodations to perform a given job, discuss this with the employer up front.
Federal and State Laws
If you are qualified for a job, state and federal laws prohibit employers from treating you differently because of your medical history. In addition to the following information about federal laws, it is important to know the provisions of your state's employment and discrimination laws. This information can be found by contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their number can be found in the blue pages of your phone book.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil-rights law that in part prohibits discrimination in employment practices. The act applies to companies with 15 or more employees and covers job application, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, training and other privileges of employment.
A cancer diagnosis alone is not necessarily a disability; each case is considered on an individual basis. ADA does not require that a person with a disability be hired over another qualified person. You must be qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job in order to be protected from job discrimination under the ADA.
The ADA offers the following protections:
- Employers may ask only job-related medical questions. It is illegal for a potential employer to ask about your medical history, including asking if you have had cancer, or request medical records from your doctor before making a job offer. However, if all employees are required to have a medical examination, you will not be exempt. The medical examination must be related to the job and consistent with the employer's business needs.
- Employers cannot ask job applicants if they are disabled or ask about the nature or severity of their disability. However, they can ask about your ability to do a specific job.
- Employers must make 'reasonable accommodations' in the workplace, at no cost to the employee, for qualified employees with disabilities. This includes making non-work areas accessible but does not include any form of personal aide, such as hearing aids. Your potential employer may ask you to describe or demonstrate how, with or without reasonable accommodations, you would be able to perform job tasks.
- Employers must treat all employees equally.
- Employers may not discriminate against a person whose family member is ill.
For more information about ADA, contact 1-800-514-0301 (voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY). Specialists are available Monday through Friday, from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST, except Thursdays, when the hours are 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Services are also available in Spanish. Information is also available through the Department of Justice ADA website.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the employment section of the ADA. The EEOC provides information about your rights under ADA and on filing job discrimination complaints. An EEOC representative can be reached at 1-800-669-4000 (voice) or 1-800-669-6820 (TTY). If you believe that your rights under ADA have been violated, you should also contact EEOC. Keep these facts in mind if you're considering filing a grievance:
- Discrimination suits are time-sensitive and must be filed within 180 days of the alleged complaint.
- If the EEOC decides not to pursue your claim, you can request a 'right to sue' letter. You will have 90 days from receipt of the letter to pursue legal action.
- Grievance suits are often time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. You should determine the long-term outcome you desire and weigh the costs versus potential benefits of filing a suit.
- Always keep detailed records of your complaints, including time, date, and witnesses.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, for federal employees, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. The standards for determining employment discrimination are the same as those under ADA.
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires businesses with more than 50 employees to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with continued benefits in a 12-month period for specified family and medical reasons. They must also offer the same or comparable job upon your return. FMLA is enforced by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Additional information can be found here:
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Every state offers vocational rehabilitation services for disabled individuals. These programs were initially developed for people who are visually impaired or deaf, have a prosthetic and/or are war veterans, but services have been expanded to include a more comprehensive group. Although the structure and location of the program varies from state to state, the fundamental purpose and goals of the programs are the same: to provide comprehensive employment services to people with disabilities.
A cancer diagnosis alone is not necessarily a disability. To qualify for services, you must document that you have a current disabling condition that poses functional limitations. In other words, you must establish that your disability whether it is physical, emotional, or mental interferes with obtaining or maintaining employment.
Applications are accepted at any age. Vocational rehabilitation employees may not be aware of late effects of childhood cancer (especially those related to learning disabilities), so you may need to provide documentation from your healthcare team or educational testing regarding late effects. If you are found ineligible for services, you can re-apply if a new late effect appears.
If you qualify for vocational rehabilitation, you'll first meet with a trained counselor for a comprehensive work evaluation. The counselor will serve as both an advocate and job coach and will help you develop a written, individualized rehabilitation plan. The plan may include work evaluation, work adjustment, training, college tuition, on-the-job training, job-coaching and a variety of other services leading to eventual employment.
The employment goal must be shared by the rehabilitation counselor and the survivor. When the goal is not being achieved, the law requires an independent advocate for the survivor from the Client Assistance Program. Information on using vocational rehabilitation for secondary education is included in the education section of this guide.
To contact your state's vocational rehabilitation services, check the government (blue) pages of your phone book or see your state's Web site (www.your state's abbreviation.gov). Some states may call their vocational rehabilitation offices by a different name, such as "Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment" or "Office of Vocational Rehabilitation."
Additional information can be found here:
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