Teacher With Cancer Allegedly Forced to Resign Due to Illness

Second Teacher With Oxygen Tank Not Welcomed to Teach

Should you be forced to leave your job if you become ill or are battling cancer?  Is it too much of an inconvenience to retain a teacher who has to live with a portable oxygen tank?

These issues are being litigated in Douglas County, Colorado.

CBSDenver reports on the case of a discrimination lawsuit against the Douglas County school district by two teachers who alleged that they were forced to retire when they became sick.

The family of one of the teachers – Sarah Staebell – claims that the district pressured her to quit when she needed frequent time off to undergo treatment for colon cancer, which has a high mortality rate.  In 2014, when she was diagnosed a second time with colon cancer, her request for additional medical leave was denied, according to the suit.

Ms. Staebell had previously battled cancer in 2013 and 2014.  Despite having worked for the district for 15 years, according to the CBS report, the lawyer for Ms. Staebell’s estate stated:

“When she was told she’d have to go through chemotherapy again, the school basically said ‘not on our watch. We’re not going to give you time off spread out over a period of time. We’re going to force you to take it all at the same time and then at the end of that month when you run out of time off, we’re going to fire you.’ ”

The lawsuit alleges that Ms. Staebell was left with no insurance benefits and two young children while she continued to battle cancer.  Sadly, Ms. Staebell died this past May at the age of 42.

The alleged reason for the termination? 

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Staebell was told that “she cannot do this again,” she should quit, and that her medical leave “was not good for the kids” who “might worry about her.”

Another Teacher Allegedly Forced by the District to Quit

Another teacher, Elizabeth Rendall, was also named in the lawsuit after she was allegedly forced to quit after she returned from medical leave with a portable oxygen tank, which she needed as a part of her ongoing battle with pneumonia.  According to the suit, the district viewed the oxygen tank as a “potential weapon,” and that she was a “direct threat to her students and herself.”

The school district has denied the allegations.  While it will be up to the judicial process to determine the merits of the suit, the allegations, if true, are shocking.

What Should Employers Learn?

Family medical leave and other similar protections are not optional.  These laws exist to protect the rights of employees – even in situations that are inconvenient to the employers.

While it may be difficult, employers benefit when they do the right thing – taking action to help sick workers, rather than seeing them as inconveniences that should be made to go away.  When workers are treated well, they have more loyalty to employers.  Other workers can similarly see positive treatment, and thus understand that if something happens them, they will be treated well.  When employers discriminate against workers in violation of the law, not only will this cause ill will among all workers, eventually – through our court system – they will also be held accountable financially.