Bad Day at the Office
On October 10th I called my three bosses to let them know I was out of the hospital and able to return to work. My online class had continued uninterrupted. I had posted the prior week’s lesson before I saw my doctor and before I was hospitalized. I posted a new lesson after my release. My two classes for another school were cancelled and needed to be made up. The director of the program was happy to hear I was able to work. At DePaul College of Law my supervisor (Martha) had covered my class conferences for the week. She would not hear of my returning on Friday, October 14th. She said that having a hysterectomy was like having a baby and no one can return to work within a week of having a baby. It would have been an hour and forty-five minutes lecture. She insisted I take the week off.
The comment was insensitive. A woman with a baby carries the baby for nine months, she delivers the baby, and she takes it home. And a woman with a baby does not get much rest. A woman with a hysterectomy cannot have a baby. She comes home alone and gets rest.
I recently opened a Twitter account and joined Hyster Sisters, an Internet group for women who have had hysterectomies. They would not take kindly any comparison of new moms and hyster sisters. In fact, members are discouraged from having screen names that mention motherhood as some of the sisters cannot have children and wish they could.
I started reading through emails received during my hospitalization and read one from a law student who mentioned her disappointment that I would not be returning to teach. It never occurred to me that the law school would terminate me during a one week absence for which my class was covered. I had been teaching there since 2006. I thought the student might have been confused.
The next day I received the following email from the head of the legal writing (the LARC) department.
I was so alarmed to hear from Martha that you had to have surgery last week, but so pleased to hear from her that you are already on the road to convalescence! Please take care of yourself and don’t overdo it in an effort to achieve normalcy too quickly. You have been through a lot—both physically and emotionally—and you can’t expect to bounce back with no set-backs.
I understand that you are eager to return to your class this semester, and I know that your students would be delighted to finish out the semester with you; many of them have expressed concern about your health and enthusiastic appreciation for your instruction. I need to let you know, though, that after fully consulting with the Dean of Faculty, I felt compelled to make the decision to reassign your students to other LARC III sections. I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue. My first responsibility is to the students’ learning and the smooth functioning of the LARC department, so I made the decision that increases the chances of maximizing both. I am sorry if my decision disappoints you, and I hope that you are able to understand the situation from my perspective.
We have every hope and expectation that you will be fully healed and able to teach in the Spring semester, and we will welcome you back in January with pleasure. If we can do anything for you in between now and then, please let me or Martha know. You have my every wish for your quick return to health and the fullness of life.
It was a bad day at the office.
Even as I write about it a month after it happened I am shuddering. It is so painful to be the object of discrimination for a diagnosis. The students were informed that I was not returning and that they were reassigned to other professors’ classes on the day I underwent surgery. At that time they knew my doctor had said that I would be able to return to work the next week. There was no prognosis that indicated my unavailability for work.
I resent the assumption that all cancer survivors suffer setbacks that prevent them from working. My doctor told me that work would be good for me. It was not my supervisors’ place to decide for me that I could not fulfill my responsibilities. Indeed, when I told my doctor what happened he said, “They can’t do that, can they?” When I shared the email with one friend he said that his law school would not use that letter in a problem because it made it too easy to spot the legal issue.
I have been working since my surgery. Had I continued my law school class I would have completed it in another week or two. Moreover, I was managing my schedule quite well when I had undetected cancer and was bleeding to the point of needing eight packs of blood. When one of my doctors asked the head of internal medicine whether I should take a stress test before surgery the doctor responded that my life must have been a stress test for some time and I had passed the test.
What shocks me most is that three members of the faculty signed off on my termination and, according to their bios on the law school’s website, two of them have backgrounds in handling cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other discrimination laws.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website (eeoc.gov) describes the Americans with Disabilities Act as follows:
“Disability Discrimination & Work Situations
The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”
It discusses cancer as follows:
“Approximately 40 percent of the more than one million Americans diagnosed with some form of cancer each year are working-age adults, and nearly 10 million Americans have a history of cancer.
“Despite significant gains in cancer survival rates and the passage of the ADA, people with cancer still experience barriers to equal job opportunities. One reason individuals with cancer face discrimination at work is their supervisors’ and co-workers’ misperceptions about their ability to work during and after cancer treatment. Even when the prognosis is excellent, some employers expect that a person diagnosed with cancer will have long absences from work or not be able to focus on duties. Today, however, unlike one hundred years ago when cancer was a literal ‘death sentence,’ most working-age cancer survivors return to work and have relatively the same productivity rates as other workers.” (Citations omitted).
The website goes on to explain: “[C]ancer is a disability when it does not significantly affect a person’s major life activities, but the employer treats the individual as if it does.” it also states: “If the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee may be unable to perform her job or may pose a direct threat to herself or others, the employer may ask for medical information. However, the employer may obtain only the information needed to make an assessment of the employee’s present ability to perform her job and to do so safely.” (Emphasis in original.)
The law seems clear. An employee with cancer who is perceived as being disabled is protected whether or not she is in fact disabled. An employer who fears a disabled employee may be incapable of working may request a doctor’s statement as to the employee’s capacity to work. It is impermissible to discriminate in the making of assignments or termination of a disabled employee based on the perceived (or real disability) if the person can perform the job or can do so with reasonable accommodation by the employer.
The legal issues I can handle. What is painful to me is that people with whom I have worked since 2006 made the decision to “sideline” me without picking up the phone to speak with me. They did not pay attention to what I told them. They expected me to fail. They underestimated my commitment, my stamina, my professionalism, and my will to succeed. I would expect at least one of them to have objected to this treatment for a stranger who walked into the clinic he founded and supervised.
I teach as many as seven classes a semester on as many as three campuses for three different schools. I am organized and competent. And I love what I do. I receive low pay and don’t care. Who I am is tied up in what I do. It is not a hobby. I put in extra hours every year to meet with students and former students to counsel them in their career development. It is time spent willingly.
I took the diagnosis of cancer as a challenge. I took the news of my termination much harder. Much harder. I have shed more tears over this action taken against me than my diagnosis. Until I received that email cancer was a medical condition. It became something that undermined who I am and what I stand for.
October 11th was a bad day at the office.