June 15, 2011 — -- Companies with fewer than 50 employees may offer little legal protection for employees requiring medical leave. Carl Sorabella of Natick, Mass., learned that the hard way.
Sorabella, an accountant, said after he told his employer his wife had lung cancer and would need a modified schedule to deal with it, he received a termination letter the following week.
"This is not an unprecedented situation," David Frank, a legal analyst with Lawyers Weekly, told ABC affiliate WCVB.
Frank said the termination is likely legal in part because laws protect firms that employ fewer than 50 people. Sorabella said his former company had about 20 employees.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, only applies to private employers with 50 or more employees working within 75 miles of the worksite. That federal law gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for serious health conditions or to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition.
"The reality of life is that it is a lot more difficult for a small company to deal with a situation where an employee is going to be out of work for an extended period of time than it is for a larger company," Frank said.
Sorabella said he and his wife of 23 years, Kathy, learned she had stage 4 incurable cancer in late April. He said he asked his employer, Haynes Management, a real estate company in Wellesley Hills, Mass., that week for a more flexible work schedule to deal with his wife's care.
"When I told my boss, she said 'We were thinking about laying you off.' I thought, 'You can't do that,'" Sorabella told WCVB.
Sorabella, 43, says he offered to work evenings and weekends while he accompanies his wife, 44, during testing and treatments.
"Ultimately she said don't worry about it and come in on Monday, and when I came in on Monday I got a letter that I would be laid off," he said. Sorabella said the letter stated he was being laid off due to "workforce modifications." But one week after he was fired, he says he saw a listing for his job on the company website.
"She said, 'It's business. I'm running a company here, and I need to make sure the department runs.' And I argued that I would make sure the company runs," Sorabella said.
Sorabella, who had worked for the company for 14 years, says he had even received a raise in November.
In an e-mail, vice president of Haynes Management Mary Butler told WCVB "this is a private personnel matter and we are not going to comment publicly."
The company did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
Sorabella said he is speaking with an attorney and may look to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, but he said there is almost no recourse for a small business.
"The company is considered a small company even though they have millions of dollars in annual sales," Sorabella said.
Kathy Sorabella, 44, said she was just as shocked as her husband when he was laid off. She said he was a diligent employee who went to work early and left late.
"He was one of these company guys," she said, adding that they did not have children.
Adding to their financial difficulties is their $60,000 worth of graduate school loans from Kathy's studies in psychotherapy. Kathy, currently undergoing chemotherapy, said she is considering trying to obtain a part-time job despite her nausea and loss of appetite. Kathy Sorabella said her cancer had not spread as far as initially believed, though she will not know if she has a year or 10 years to live until her next CAT scan in three months.
For now, Sorabella and his wife are surviving on his unemployment and her disability insurance while he looks for work.
"Now we're just spending time with each other," said Kathy. "This has been a horrific situation."