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Disclosing Hep C Status in the Workplace

Nicole Cutler L.Ac. May 15, 2013

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Deciding whether or not to tell your boss you have Hepatitis C is a multifaceted issue that requires education, planning and support.

Sharing your Hepatitis C status with employers or coworkers can be riddled with complexity. Whether interviewing for a new job, changing health insurance plans, being recently diagnosed or about to begin antiviral therapy, there are many factors to consider before disclosing that you have chronic Hepatitis C. There are no hard and fast rules for how to handle this topic, especially since each individual’s health and employment situation are unique. Knowing where the law lies and reviewing some of the issues involved are helpful when navigating the challenge of Hepatitis C disclosure at work.

Drug Stigma

The stigma associated with Hepatitis C infection represents the biggest barrier to disclosing having this viral illness. More specifically, the hardest stigma to confront relates to the assumption that this infection is due to injection drug use. This could – or could not – be the source of your infection, as there are countless ways Hepatitis C is spread. Regardless of how you acquired Hepatitis C, our society lacks compassion and understanding about injection drug use:

  • Those who never used injection drugs do not want to be associated with it.
  • Former injection drug users may feel haunted by their past and want to forget it.
  •  Active injection drug users carry the burden of having two stigmatized diseases – addiction and Hepatitis C.

Two Common Fears

Besides the stigma surrounding injection drug use, there are a handful of fears that others may have of working with someone infected with Hepatitis C. While most of these are unfounded, others may have merit. The two most likely fears coworkers or employers have are:

  1. Fear of Contagion – There is a great deal of misinformation about how you contract the Hepatitis C virus. For example, those who work in the food service industry may incorrectly believe that Hepatitis C can be passed through food, or those sharing an office cubicle may incorrectly believe that Hepatitis C can be shared by casual contact. For the record, Hepatitis C is only transmissible via blood-to-blood contact.
  2. Fear of Reduced Performance – Depending on the person’s health and if they are in treatment, this fear may or may not be justified. Fatigue, memory problems, nausea and cloudy thinking are common in those with advanced infection and/or those receiving Hepatitis C therapy. However, many people with Hepatitis C are asymptomatic and their job performance is not impacted by their illness.

Disclosure

When questioned about disclosure in the workplace, most people report only doing so when necessary. In general, you are not legally required to tell anyone that you have Hepatitis C. You have the right to choose whom you tell – if anyone at all. However, there are certain circumstances in which it pays to be honest. For example:

  • If you are aware of having Hepatitis C and want life or medical insurance, you must disclose this when asked.
  •  If you are preparing to undergo Hepatitis C therapy, disclosure might be helpful if you need to request extra time for doctor visits and/or being sick.
  • Being directly asked about Hepatitis C status in an interview is rare, but possible. Although this may not seem fair, some employers ask questions like this during the interview process. It is legal for them to ask as long as they ask this of every potential employee. It pays to be honest here, because lying can legitimize firing.

While honesty usually ends up working to people’s advantage, discrimination might accompany a Hepatitis C disclosure. If you do decide to disclose this illness at work, make sure you are prepared. Know your facts so you can properly educate employers and/or coworkers. While a pamphlet on Hepatitis C can come in handy, be prepared to answer questions about prevalence, how the illness is transmitted, treatment and side effects, symptoms and prognosis. Above all else, make sure you have a support system in place so that you have access to resources if needed.

The ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may offer someone with Hepatitis C some degree of legal protection against discrimination in the workplace. Some states offer greater protection than the ADA.

  • Employers in the United States with 15 or more employees are required to comply with the ADA.
  • The ADA protects “qualified individuals with disabilities.”
  • The ADA describes disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual.
  •  A disability cannot be measured solely on the ability to do certain tasks at work, but must also be permanent or long lasting.
  • A person with a disability designation is entitled to protection from any practices in the workplace that could affect wages, benefits, application procedures, job assignments, promotions, etc.
  • Having Hepatitis C does not automatically entitle someone to these benefits.
  • You cannot be terminated from employment solely because of Hepatitis C status.
  • The ADA does not provide protections for those who cannot work due to a disability.
  • ADA assists people who can work, but may need some extra consideration in performing their duties so that they may continue to work. Some reasonable accommodations that might be appropriate are time off for doctors’ appointments, providing additional unpaid leave or job restructuring, and granting a flexible work schedule.
  • There is nothing in the ADA law that prohibits an employer from terminating your employment if you do not perform your job, even if it is a disability that prevents you from doing so.
  • Other laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and COBRA/OBRA provide help for those who are permanently disabled.

Before disclosing you have Hepatitis C at work, carefully consider all of your options and the potential implications. Be aware of the stigma associated with Hepatitis C and people’s most common fears so that you can fully educate your employer or coworkers. Decide if it is in your best interest to disclose this personal, medical manner by being aware of what legal rights you may or may not be entitled to. With the right preparation, knowledge and support, those with Hepatitis C can make the best possible decision about disclosing their illness at work.

References:

http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hepatitis/factsheets_pdf/ADA_FS_10.pdf, Americans with Disabilities Act: What it does and doesn’t do, Jacques Chambers, CLU, Retrieved March 19, 2013, Hepatitis C Support Project, 2013.

http://hcvadvocate.org/hepatitis/factsheets_pdf/Disclosure%20Guide.pdf, HCV and Work-Related Issues, Lucinda K. Porter, RN, Alan Franciscus, Retrieved March 19, 2013, Hepatitis C Support Project, 2013.

http://www.hepcfocus.com/content/Library_ADA.aspx, Americans with Disabilities Act, Retrieved March 19, 2013, The Department of Health and Human Services, 2013.

http://www.thelaw.com/guide/employment/can-you-be-fired-from-work-for-having-hepatitis-c/, Can You Be Fired from Work for Having Hepatitis C?, Michael M. Wechsler, Esq, Retrieved March 19, 2013, The Law Network, LLC, 2013.

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