I have been wanting to write this post for some time, but in all honesty this was such an anxiety causing problem for me all summer that I only feel ok now to share my story. The short and long: I needed to seek accommodation at my last place of employment due to my MS and never in a thousand years could I have imagined how it went. I am proud that I managed to walk away from this mess with my head held high, despite wanting to further fight this, but what is the fight really worth? It came to a point that I realized that I would not want to work for an employer that discriminates against their staff. When I first got diagnosed with MS I heard horror stories of people being discriminated by their employers and I thought who on earth would be that awful?! It was a real shocker to find myself now at the center of one of those stories.
In March I had a routine MRI and two weeks before I was to return to work I went to see my neurologist to get the results and have a check up post baby. Since having my son I had really hard days riddled with pain and weakness, some days I felt like I couldn’t even hold him as I was not strong enough. I write this with tears on my face, as no mother wants to feel like she is too weak to hold her child.
When I went to see my Neurologist I told her of the pain, and I broke down as I was worried to hear that this could indeed be my MS being active. I expressed to her how terrible I had been feeling and told her I was not sure if what I was feeling was post partum changes in my body or MS, or a combo of both. After examining me she confirmed that it was indeed my MS that was to blame. She then showed me the results of my MRI, which was not that great. I had new lesions and she was worried about the progression of the disease in my body based on the symptoms I had described. She suggested that I ask my work for a few more weeks off to figure out what would be best next steps for me and she suggested that if I decided to return to work that I ask them for an accommodated work schedule.
I loved my job and I had always intended to return to work. I drove home with tears streaming down my face the entire way, scared of what could be brewing in my body, worried about my job security and sad that as a new mother I had this MS jerk in the way of me enjoying my son the way I wanted to. That same evening I tried to pull it together to call my supervisors to discuss my options. I had always had a good relationship with my place of work and was a good employee so I didn’t think there would be a problem. He was not there so I left a message letting him know that I needed to talk to him ASAP about my health and how it might affect my return to work, I followed up with an email. Almost nine days later I still hadn’t heard back, sorry but that’s just rude. I get that people are busy but when an employee leaves a message saying it’s health related, there should be some urgency to your repsonse. I called and left another email, and the reply I finally got was that he was too busy and the acting supervisor would call me.
When I finally spoke to the acting supervisor and explained the situation, I let her know that I wanted to return to work but I would like to see if I could seek accommodation to work from home two days a week (I worked four days a week) her answer was and I quote “I am not sure as we usually only reserve the right to work from home for special cases.” UMMMMM SPECIAL CASES? How special is special because I am pretty sure that a letter from a neurologist is pretty special!
I was so upset and we ended the call with nothing solved. My neurologist had connected me with a Social Worker at the MS clinic to help advocate on my behalf, and when she called to speak to my acting supervisor she too was told the same thing, that working from home was for ‘special cases’ and she offered this suggestion: I quit my job and come back as an auxiliary employee and work casually at the front desk. Apparently this would me flexibility to work when I felt well. UMMMM WTF! I could not believe my ears when my social worker told me this. So let me get this straight: leave my job of almost 8 years, go to a role four pay scales less than what I earned, loose my benefits and all job security and work on call?! Not to mention what about my contributions related to my current role being valued? Work on call? How on earth would I get childcare last minute? My Social Worker let me know that they were violating the Human Rights Code (Duty to Accommodate) and at that point suggested I file a formal complaint.
By this point we were already two months in and nothing was decided and I kept asking for my sick pay, which they would not answer my request for, not even to let me know if I had access to any. Finally I got my Union involved who also confirmed there was a violation based on the Human Rights Code and they wrote my employer a letter telling them I was entitled to my sick pay (I had 160 hours banked!) and reminded them that they had a duty to accommodate. I would like to thank my CUPE 15 representative, had it not been for him I am not sure I would have received my sick pay.
The battle went on and truthfully I began to put my head in the sand. I felt so hurt that I was being discriminated against as a person living with a disability and chronic illness. I decided to seek legal advice who confirmed that my employer had acted unjustly and that I could put in a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and even go after my employer for lost wages and the discrimination that they displayed. They also told me it could be a long battle and for me to think about the energy I had to take this further. My health was suffering, I was riddled with anxiety and I just wanted to end this all.
Not only was I dealing with the results of the MRI at the back of my mind, but all this too now. To add salt to the wound one of my fellow employee’s, who I called a friend, called me one day and told me that it appeared at work that I was ‘milking it.’ That‘s a pretty skinny cow because I was not getting a penny! I was shocked he would even suggest such a thing. Not to mention how would he have heard anything as I had only spoke to the acting supervisor.
My lawyer helped me write a letter detailing all that happened in which was sent to upper management. Two weeks passed and not one of the four I sent it to responded. I continued to feel disrespected by my employer, and question if I really wanted to spend time away from my child in a place like that? After much thought I finally decided to hand in my resignation, with yet another letter letting them know why I was leaving; I had been discriminated against as a person with MS in need of accommodation and did not want to work for an employer that had no time for their employee’s. I encouraged them to review their hiring practices when putting people in supervisor positions and that they be trained on employee rights and the duty to accommodate. I suggested that staff and management engage in sensitivity training and that I hoped no other employee would have to face the rudeness and discrimination I had to.
There are many more ugly details to this story that make it go from bad to worse but the important details have been stated. You must be thinking how can there be more, right? Like the Acting Manager gossiping at a dinner party about wanting to get my fired to her friend in front of someone that she had no clue knew me, using my first and last name. Smooth move there Mrs. Manager, smooth move. I have left names out on purpose when writing this post as my goal is not to point fingers at any specific person or the organization; if you really want to know who these people are I am sure a quick visit to LinkedIN will help answer those questions for you. Upper Management did eventually tell me (three weeks ago) that they were looking into this issue but by that time it was just two late (this all started in May!) If they had a solution, by that point I was no longer interested. I write this to close the chapter in the pain this caused me, to share with others that this still happens and let people know we have rights! Not only was I discriminated against as someone with a disability, but also as a woman returning off her maternity leave, and this was also stated by my Union rep and my lawyer. I made some mistakes along the way as I was not thinking clearly, mostly forgetting to follow up with emails and try and get as much as possible in writing. I hope my tips below will help others should they ever be in this awful position.
A few tips if you ever find yourself in this situation:
- Accommodation is a legal right that all employers are obligated to fulfill. PERIOD.
- If you are part of a Union go to them right away! They are helpful.
- Write everything down and keep a folder of all emails (luckily I did this).
- Send follow up emails after phone calls.
- Know that you have rights and the employer is legally bound to accommodate you based on the Employment Law Act and the Human Rights Code.
- Get a lawyer! Even if to settle your mind, get some feedback and help with the support you might need during this time. I am extremely grateful to the legal advice I was given and the support they offered me.
- Don’t feel bad to send a letter letting people know that they are wrong. You have the right to express yourself and hold people accountable for their actions.
Lastly I want to say thank you, to anyone that might read this that I worked with (both staff and volunteers and board members) for the great times we had together. I enjoyed working with you all for the last 7.5 years and I left with a heavy heart, not having the chance to say a proper goodbye. My amazing volunteer team gave me the energy to come to work each day, leaving me with fun stories to tell and a big smile on my face daily. The generosity these volunteers showed as active members in their community always warmed my heart. I learned so much from everyone, built friendships and will forever remember the time spent with you all. I am grateful for the opportunities I was given and the chance to work with a great staff team and amazing group of volunteers and have the chance to learn so much about the arts. I wish you all the best and hope I run into you in the future.