Claudia Rendon, 41, of Philadelphia, said her employer, Aviation Institute of Maintenance, fired her after she took time off to donate a kidney to her son. Rendon said the school was also trying to collect up to $2,000 from her son, a student at the school, related to his sick leave.
Rendon, who worked for a year and a half in the school's admissions office, said she notified the school that she planned to take leave on July 19 to undergo kidney transplant surgery on July 21 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on behalf of her 22-year-old son, Alex, whose kidney failed last January. After extensive testing in early July, Rendon was found to be a match.
"I would do it all over again. No questions asked," Rendon said.
Kidney transplant surgery normally requires at least six to eight weeks of recovery time, and Rendon said the Aviation Institute agreed to give Rendon unpaid leave until Sept. 1. Rendon told ABCNews.com that on her last day of work before the surgery, her manager promised Rendon she would have her job upon her return, but one hour later, asked her to sign a letter acknowledging that her job was not secured.
"They said, 'If you don't sign this letter, you are abandoning your job and quitting,'" Rendon told ABCNews.com. "I said, 'I am not abandoning my job. I am saving my son's life.'"
Rendon said she signed the letter after a superior at the company told her she was a "good employee" and would most likely have her job when she returned. Rendon said she'd taken holiday leave earlier this year related to the illnesses of family members, which included one week to bury her mother in Colombia in February.
Calls to the Aviation Institute of Maintenance's headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va., were transferred to the school in Philadelphia, where Rendon had worked. When asked if it would comment on Rendon's firing, its communications department said "absolutely not."
On Aug. 24, Rendon called Aviation Institute saying she was not sure she could return to work by Sept. 1 because of severe back pain. She said the institute then asked her for a letter from the hospital.
The University of Pennsylvania hospital and her short-term disability provider each wrote letters to Rendon's employer, according to Rendon, indicating she would return to work Sept. 12.
On Sept. 8, Rendon said she made a social visit to her workplace and learned that her job was filled two days before. Rendon said the school cited business needs.
Rendon, who said she could walk only 10 to 15 minutes without assistance because of severe back pain, said she was still shocked about her firing.
"If they would have told me to come back that day, I would have done it," Rendon said.
Losing her job, Rendon said, means she can't pay for a new apartment she just moved into.
While her son has recovered from the transplant, Rendon said the school is trying to collect $2,000 related to time he took off for medical reasons. Rendon said the school is charging her son, who became a student December 2009, $150 to re-enroll, on top of the $2,000.
"[The school] told him he took too long of a leave," Rendon said.
Michael Foreman, clinical law professor and director of Penn State's Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, said Rendon's employer is not required to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act because it has less than 50 employees. Rendon estimated the company had about 30 employees in the Philadelphia office.
Foreman said the state of Pennsylvania, like most other states, has its own medical leave laws, but they closely mirror federal laws.
Foreman said Rendon's surgery and medical complications could possibly be covered under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act or under Pennsylvania's disabilities law. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act applies to all public and private employers in Pennsylvania with four or more employees.
"The issue is whether her surgery and complications would constitute a physical impairment substantially limiting a major life activity. That is basically the legal definition from these laws," said Foreman.
If it's determined that it does, the employer would have to provide "reasonable accommodation" requiring an examination of how keeping the position open could harm the company's business.
Ellen Dannin, law professor at Penn State University, said the Americans With Disabilities Act encourages negotiation between an employer and employee to see how they can accommodate a disability, such as allowing an employee to work part-time.
Foreman said the law could apply even if an employee chose to ride a bike without a helmet and sustained a serious head injury.
"Assuming my head injury constitutes a physical impairment substantially limiting a major life activity, I am covered under these law even though my injury was due to my voluntary activity," Foreman said.
Rendon said she is hoping to find legal representation, because she doesn't believe her company replaced her for business reasons.
"I gave them my best my all," she said. "I don't know why they would do this."