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Can You Be Fired for Having to Care for a Sick Relative?


Can You Be Fired for Having to Care for a Sick Relative?

What people with caretaking responsibilities need to know about the Americans with Disabilities Act

Nothing shifts your priorities like finding out that a loved one has a terminal illness.

Even the most dedicated employee may find that work takes a back seat to ensuring that their loved one gets proper treatment.

In the best case scenarios, workers receive the support and understanding of their employers during these stressful and emotionally upsetting times.

Unfortunately, though, that’s not always the case. It’s not uncommon for employers to get frustrated with a worker whose time and attention is divided between their job and medical issues. The next thing the staffer knows, he or she is suddenly in the position of being forced off the job.

That’s why it’s important for people with caretaking responsibilities to know what their rights are.

Let’s take a look at how one company attempted to drive out a female employee who was caring for her cancer-stricken son. Then, we’ll discuss the how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) association provision protects people who have a known relationship to a disabled person.

Years of Illness

Theresa Buffington’s life was built around doctor visits. Her son, D.J., was diagnosed with cancer when he was only two years old.

Despite having to frequently take time off to care for D.J., Buffington was still a solid performer at work. At the Burger King she managed, she was constantly rated average or above average in her performance reviews. She had no history of reprimands during her seven years of employment at the company.

However, at one point, D.J.’s condition took a sudden turn for the worse. He needed surgery to remove a tumor, and then required extended recovery time, followed by radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Buffington missed a lot of work.

Buffington’s uneven attendance was a source of concern for her supervisors. They began to write memos back and forth, discussing the possibility of demoting her if she “couldn’t handle the job.”

Not long after that, Buffington was fired for breaking a company rule that was rarely enforced.

When she was terminated, Buffington’s supervisor stated that they needed someone “whose head is there 100%” and that, without a job, Buffington was free to spend all her time with her son.

D.J. died eight months later.

Discrimination in Disguise

Buffington spoke to a lawyer. She sued the company, claiming that she was fired due to her association with a disabled person in violation of the ADA.

The company tried to get the case dismissed. It argued that Buffington’s performance had been declining for some time.

But the court refused to throw out the case. A jury awarded Buffington $115,000 in front pay, $70,000 in compensatory damages, and over $48,000 in back pay.

(The case discussed here is Buffington v. PEC Management.)

What You Need to Know

The association provision of the ADA is intended to protect people in situations like the one above.

In a nutshell, the provision states that:

  1. Employees or job candidates who have a known relationship with a disabled person may not be discriminated against because of that relationship. Discrimination may include such “adverse actions” as failing to hire someone because of assumed responsibilities to care for a disabled person, or demoting, terminating or otherwise reprimanding someone because of his or her caretaking duties.
  2. The disabled person does not have to be a family member in order to trigger protection.

Keep in mind that coverage under the ADA is determined on a case-by-case basis, so it’s important to know how the law applies your specific circumstances.

If you believe that you’ve been unlawfully discriminated against because of your caretaking responsibilities, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney who has experience handling ADA issues.

Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.

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