Progressive Voices

Cancer survivor’s firing highlights need for better workplace policies

No one of should have to choose between health and a paycheck. Donna Sotomayor didn’t even have that choice.

After being diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer two years ago, Donna took leave from her job to undergo surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. The Raleigh teacher’s assistant suffered through a year of illnesses and infections, missing work in the process.

Unfortunately, because she fell just short of the number of work hours needed to qualify for protection under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – a federal law that entitles eligible employees to take unpaid leave for medical reasons and still keep their jobs – Donna was eventually fired; punished for an illness she had no control over.

It seems unfathomable that a person should suffer through such a terrible illness only to find that he or she has been stripped of their livelihood as well. Yet situations similar to Donna’s are all too common in modern North Carolina.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Such situations could be avoided if our current system was adequately designed for today’s workers, many of whom will face long-term illnesses or need to take time off to care for a sick family member. Their lack of options highlights the need to expand the number of workers to whom the FMLA applies. It also makes clear the need to enact laws that will provide for the option of paid leave through family leave insurance. As policies currently stand, however, many workers will be left suffering long after they have battled a life-threatening illness.

In Donna’s case, the problem was especially vexing in that she lacked a mere 50 work hours to qualify for medical leave under the FMLA. Unfortunately, many workers like Donna don’t qualify for protection under the FMLA, which requires employees to have worked for at least 1,250 hours in the preceding year (and, in the private sector, is limited to employers with 50 or more employees).

Of course, for many sick workers, even the FMLA is inadequate because it only guarantees unpaid leave; even if workers are able to take leave and also keep their jobs, many can’t afford to take unpaid time off.

According to a recent study, nearly 80 percent of workers who need and are eligible for FMLA don’t take unpaid leave due to financial challenges.

Paid family and medical leave is rare in this country – a fact that makes the United States an outlier among developed countries. In the South Atlantic region in which North Carolina is located, only 11 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid leave of this kind.

Some states, however, such as New Jersey and California, have made strides to implement paid family leave insurance programs. The programs are funded by an employee payroll tax and don’t impose any direct costs on employers.

Paid leave is not only critical for workers’ economic security – it also has a minimal effect on business operations and can in fact save costs in the long run, as more workers are able to stay at their jobs for longer, leading to reduced employee turnover rates. In short, it’s a cost-effective way to support working families by accommodating life’s everyday struggles and ensuring workers’ long-term employment.

High unemployment continues to plague North Carolina and threaten the economic security of working families across the state. Paid leave is a proven job-retention strategy, and combined with expanded Family Medical Leave, could make a huge difference for working families that are facing unforeseen illnesses and medical issues.

It clearly would have made a world of difference for Donna Sotomayor, who’s now out of work and out of options.

Sabine Schoenbach is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers Rights Project.

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