Controversial layoff letter of dental assistant with cancer: What NOT to do

This dentist may have meant well, but there still might have been a better way to handle this "layoff."

Controversial Layoff

By now you’ve all probably read the article about the dental assistant in Pennsylvania who was abruptly laid off because she has cancer. The dentist has been made to look like a villain, and the letter has been splashed across several websites, including this one.

Controversial Layoff

Like any other story, there are two sides. While this letter looks heartless on the surface, according to several online articles the dentist claims that by writing the letter he is enabling the assistant to collect unemployment benefits.

How did the media get their hands on the letter? The articles I found online offer the explanation that a friend posted the letter on Facebook to alert other friends about the assistant's unemployment. (The Facebook page is currently promoting a golf tournament to raise funds for the woman's treatment.) Things blew up from there when the letter was discovered by a media outlet that published it, and others shared the article.

According to the Yahoo article, the doctor and assistant are stunned at the publicity. The assistant “is not worried about the doctor at all, and she made it quite clear to me that she wants [the attention] diffused,” a friend said.

Did the dentist commit any legal wrongdoing? What sort of human resources mess did this create? We reached out to Bent Erickson and Associates, a leading authority in employment compliance and human resources, to ask for their input in order to help other dental employers avoid the same type of bad situation.

Here is what Rebecca Boartfield of Bent Erickson and Associates said about this letter. “Basically, this situation falls under disability laws. Whether the person is dealing with a life-threatening illness such as cancer, or depression, or a broken leg, if the person is disabled by the condition, then the employer must look to accommodate it if the person can otherwise perform the essential functions of his or her job. Anything else, like immediate termination, and the employer could face discrimination charges.

“Here is an article I wrote about disability laws that appeared in Dental Economics. As we note in the first paragraph of the DE article, there are no simple, black-and-white answers.

“Not knowing the specifics of this case, it's possible that the person, given that medical information was not provided in this article, was unable to perform the essential functions of her job and therefore was terminated. This may be perfectly justifiable.

“It's also possible the employer engaged in the process of determining accommodation and reached the conclusion that it couldn't be done without undue hardship. In this case, termination of employment can occur and may be justifiable.

“It could also be that the employer did not engage in that interaction and jumped to termination first, in which case, if the person wanted to attack him for discrimination, she probably could. This may, depending on all the facts, result in the employer being held responsible for a termination that was not legitimate and nondiscriminatory.

Ms. Boartfield concluded, “The law doesn't govern manners, which many are upset about. Should the dentist have written this letter rather than doing it in some other, possibly more respectful, way? Perhaps. But, that is not the concern as it relates to problems. It's whether the termination was justified and legal or not. There's not enough in these article to ascertain that.”

Meg Kaiser

Meg Kaiser helps coordinate the e-newsletters Dental Assisting Digest, The Dentist-Lab Connection, and DE's Expert Tips and Tricks, and welcomes articles for the Practice Management, Dental Assisting, and Laboratory sections of Follow her on Twitter @mlkaiser.

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