You Don’t Have to Tell Your Employer About a Serious Diagnosis—But You Still Might Want To

Originally published in GQ on August 31, 2020.
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On Friday, Actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at age 43. From an announcement posted to his Instagram, the public learned the star had originally received the diagnosis in 2016, and that he had filmed many of his best-loved films while undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries to fight the disease.

The news came as a shock not only to the general public, but even to directors, producers and colleagues he had worked closely with over the last four years. Sarah Halley Finn, the veteran casting director who picked Boseman to play T’Challa in Black Panther, told Vulture she had no idea the actor had cancer as the blockbuster was filmed in 2017. And in a tribute on Saturday, Spike Lee said it never crossed his mind while on set with Boseman. “I never, ever suspected that anything was wrong,” said the director of Da 5 Bloods. “No one knew he was going through treatment.”

The decision of whether to disclose a serious diagnosis like cancer to an employer is frequently a fraught one. Under federal law, no one is required to tell their employer as long as they assume they can reasonably do the work required, but disclosure is necessary to trigger the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the main federal statute protecting cancer patients in the workplace.

Even if workers disclose, employers are limited in what they can ask about the cancer and must keep any medical information they learn confidential. Reasonable workplace accommodations for cancer patients include leaving for doctor’s appointments, time off to recover from treatment, and periodic breaks during the work day.

That Boseman kept his private life under wraps does not mean he never sought any accommodations to deal with his illness in the workplace, and he was potentially able to negotiate well beyond the legal minimum. “Given that it’s Hollywood, I could imagine a contract that [Boseman] enters into with a studio setting out his specific needs and binding anyone to secrecy,” said Sasha Samberg-Champion, a civil rights attorney who specializes in disability law. “If you have that kind of stature and a sophisticated agent you could work those things out. And the employer might not even be allowed to know why you need certain things.”

Gordon Firemark, a Los-Angeles based entertainment lawyer, told GQ that it’s “pretty typical” for an actor’s agent or manager to negotiate special accommodations for their clients like private dressing rooms, separate facilities, transportation or special foods. “If an actor of his stature is starring in a movie and he can’t be there because he had a chemo session, they’ll often just schedule around them, and that could be kept very quiet,” said Firemark.

For many workers who may have less negotiating power, having cancer in the workplace, even with the protections of the A.D.A., can be extremely difficult. To start with, the 30-year-old law does not protect independent contractors or those who work in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. But even employees covered by the law can still face discrimination, as some courts have ruled that extended periods of leave for cancer treatment can be legitimate grounds for termination.

Ann Hodges, a University of Virginia law professor and co-founder of CancerLINC, a nonprofit that helps cancer patients and their families navigate legal issues, said employers are often more willing to accommodate people working in higher-wage jobs.

“Sometimes it’s because they’re just not as easy to replace, or they may have more power in the organization,” she said. “Often those patients also have jobs that can more easily be done remotely.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, higher-wage workers are six times as likely to be able to work from home compared to lower-wage workers.

Hodges, a cancer survivor herself, points out that many Americans also lose their health insurance if they lose their jobs—a problem in the best of times, and an acute crisis for someone in treatment for cancer.

As a member of SAG-AFTRA, the union for film and television actors, Boseman would have had access to the union’s vaunted healthcare plans. But David White, the national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, noted that even these plans have been under strain—they’re “not immune” from the larger issues plaguing America’s healthcare system. Earlier this month, in light of projected deficits in the tens of millions of dollars, the entertainment union announced it would have to tighten eligibility requirements and raise premiums going forward. More than 17,000 people have signed a petition in protest.

“It’s a constant struggle to make sure that we are maximizing access for people like Chadwick and for people who can only dream of having Chadwick’s level of success,” White said.

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