Giving Time Off to Help Save a Life

By Jeremy Smerd

Jul. 1, 2008

Phyllis Delaney’s employer was full of sympathy after the data entry clerk learned her brother would soon die without a kidney transplant. But the good feelings soured when Delaney was told she would not have her job to return to if she took time off to donate her kidney.

    “You can’t hold this job for me for four weeks while I do this for my brother?” Delaney recalls asking her supervisor at the Signature Healthcare Foundation in St. Louis. “I don’t call this ‘working with me.’ “

    What happened next is a matter of dispute—one that may be worked out through a lawsuit Delaney is contemplating. Delaney, who had worked at the foundation for eight months, says she was fired; the company says she left voluntarily to donate her kidney.

    The confusion and bad feelings that resulted exemplify why advocates for organ transplantation are turning to employers to help shorten the wait list of people in need as well as pushing for laws protecting an organ donor’s job while they are away.

    Calling it a creative but relatively inexpensive way for companies to do a good thing, the American Society of Transplantation is hoping employers will make it easier for employees to become donors. The organization would like to see large employers guarantee paid time off for employees who donate an organ. Advocates say the time off—one week for bone marrow transplants and 30 days for organ donations—should not cut into vacation or sick leave.

    As the national organ donation wait list nears 100,000 people, the Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, organization is hoping the good will of employers will increase the rate of living donations, which tend to be more successful than organs transplanted from cadavers. Last year there were 6,306 live organ transplants in the U.S., compared with 22,048 organ transplants that came from cadavers, according to the society. The cost of the transplant is paid by the insurance of the person receiving the organ.

    “For most companies this is not a huge thing, because how many donors are they going to have in one company?” says transplant society president Barbara Murphy, a kidney transplant doctor. “It shouldn’t cause undue financial burden for anyone company.”

    Gary Smith, a lawyer for Signature Healthcare Foundation, says the burden is great for small employers, especially those that are nonprofit organizations. These organizations cannot afford to leave positions open or pay for employees in their absence. Formed in 2002 by multi-practice St. Louis-based doctor’s group Signature Health Services Inc., the foundation employs 15 people. Part of its mission is to provide discounted home health care and rehabilitation services.

    If a law were to protect the jobs of donors, small employers like the foundation would likely be excluded from it, just as they are excluded from having to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

    So far, the only laws that exist pertain to federal employees and to state employees in about half the U.S., all of whom have the right to take a paid leave of absence to donate an organ. Federal law gives employees seven days off for bone marrow transplants and 30 days off for organ donations. Donors say they would have donated anyway, but the job and financial security the law provides makes it easier to do so.

    Julie Russo worked for the state of Ohio when she was cleared by doctors to donate a kidney to her dying uncle.

    “It’s stressful to think you’re going to have surgery; there’s a lot to worry about,” Russo says. “The fact that I didn’t have to worry about money helped a lot.”

    Russo, who now works for a private public relations company in Columbus, Ohio, was in the hospital for four days, immobilized for another week and out of work for six weeks. The guaranteed pay from her employer provided financial stability and convinced her uncle that she wouldn’t suffer any more for the physical risk she was taking.

    While an organ transplant is not a regular occurrence, employers that have put policies in place say they have benefited from doing so. The American Society of Transplantation says 41 employers, many in the health care industry, have paid leave policies for organ donors. Across town from the Signature Healthcare Foundation, Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis has for several years offered paid time for organ donors. The decision was a natural fit for the hospital, which has a transplant center that has more than 600 people on its wait list.

    “I think employees all think it’s a good thing and the right thing to do, whether they ever access it or not,” says Gene Ridolfi, an administrator at the organ transplant center who first broached the question with his senior HR leaders.

    About a quarter of the live kidney and liver donors reported to the society that donating causes them financial stress. Without her $12-an-hour job, Delaney, a single mother of a 14-year-old, relied on family to help pay her bills. For the first time in her life, she says, she has applied for food stamps. She was unable to afford the premiums to continue her health insurance. (Medical costs related to her surgery are covered by her brother’s insurance.)

    Signature Healthcare Foundation quickly filled Delaney’s position as a data entry clerk. Smith, the foundation’s lawyer, says Signature will help Delaney find a position if one is available. But Delaney’s feelings toward her old employer have changed. Now that she has recovered and is fit to work, she plans on returning to her former employer. Instead of working, though, she plans on picketing outside their offices.

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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