• Terminal illness ‘should be a protected characteristic’

  • 21 Mar 2016
  • Comments 3 comments

Campaigners aim to change European law after employee with breast cancer is ‘forced out’ by bosses

Politicians and unions are backing a campaign to make terminal illness a protected characteristic in the workplace, which is being led by an employee with breast cancer who claims she was “intimidated” and “bullied” by her employer following her diagnosis.

Jacci Woodcock, a 58-year-old regional sales manager from Derbyshire, was given a year to live. She was dismissed from her role following a “capability assessment”, and, although she reached a settlement with her employer, was surprised that she was not afforded the same rights as those with protected characteristics such as pregnancy.

She is now the face of the ‘Dying to Work’ campaign, which is being backed by the TUC and a cross-party group of MPs and aims to change both the EU equal treatment directives and, in turn, UK equality legislation. Terminal illness, it argues, is degenerative, which means reasonable adjustments for employees should be both made and regularly reviewed. This would also mean that employers could claim back statutory sick pay for terminally-ill staff.

Pauline Latham, Woodcock’s MP, recently raised the issue with David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, telling him: “She [Woodcock] has shown outstanding courage in her fight against the disease, but unfortunately she did not receive support or compassion from her employer, who wanted to dismiss her through capability procedures.” The Dying to Work campaign will formally launch at a House of Commons event in April.

Woodcock told the Guardian she had hoped that continuing to work through her illness would take her mind off her treatment: “My partner had left me after I was told the cancer was terminal, saying he couldn’t cope. I needed the money to pay the bills.” But she ended up feeling “bullied” and “intimidated”, she claimed, after her HR department told her she had used up her sick leave and telephoned her oncologist’s office to check the dates of her scans and treatments.

“HR used those dates to allege that I had been off sick when I hadn’t,” she said. “Most of the appointments took place later in the afternoon, in the evening or on Saturdays. I wanted to take a stand. I couldn’t believe how morally wrong it was.”

Louise Skinner, counsel at Allen & Overy, said there was a moral case for employers to make reasonable adjustments for terminally-ill employees – and that any dismissal relating to a medical condition already runs the risk of being discriminatory.

But she said adding to the list of protected characteristics could prove financially punitive for smaller employers in particular, unless the government was to offer specific support, and urged organisations to put policies in place that emphasise a more human approach: “Problems usually arise from employers that lack the knowhow or resources to deal with sensitive situations like this. The key is to have an open dialogue, to try and find a solution that works for both the terminally ill worker and the employer. Responding sensitively and engaging with the worker will ensure they feel supported and able to work to the best of their ability.”

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Comments (3)
  • Agree with both comments above - I also thought that cancer (also MS and HIV) was classed as a disability from the point of prognosis? So not sure what an additional protected characteristic would add?

  • Many years ago there was a trainer within Network Rail who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was fully supported, even to the point that at his request he was taken work that he could do from his hospital bed. He remained fully employed until his death. Whilst I understand that smaller businesses may suffer financially, I think that supporting staff who want to remain working at such a horrendous time would be worth the weight in gold.

  • Isn't cancer at the point of diagnosis classed as a disability? Therefore a protected characteristic already?