Monday, November 5, 2012

The Full Story

I have recently become a permanent employee after almost four years of being at my job as a contracted employee.  This is a HUGE deal.  My health insurance will now cost one third of what it was, I get an extra week of vacation and three extra personal holidays.  I will also be represented by a union, a benefit that would have been invaluable four years ago.

Many of you read our extensive posts about Simon's ups and downs when he was in hospital and how we managed day-to-day as a family.  What I could not blog about then was the unimaginable nightmare that was unfolding behind the scenes at my job.  I feel like I can now publicly tell the full story of what was really happening.

I had been at my job at a hospital-based women’s health center for about a year and a half when Laura got pregnant.  I couldn’t imagine a better place to become a new mother. Our center focused primarily on programs, resources and classes to support pregnant women and new parents.  I was going to practice what we preached about life/work balance and creating supportive, healthy environments for new parents and their babies.

Like any mother, I wanted to bond with the new baby and support Laura for 4-6 weeks after he was born so I planned to take my legally-protected Family Medical Leave Act leave. When Laura hit the middle of her second trimester, I told my boss that I hoped to take time off. I explained that I wanted to take all 6 weeks that were available to me and hoped to take it in one block when the baby was born.

An odd, displeased look crossed over her face for a split second. Then she gathered herself and said it wouldn’t be a problem.  When I came home that night, I mentioned her slightly “off” response to Laura but neither of us thought much of it.  I had stellar marks on all my formal performance reviews, the leave was legally guaranteed and I worked at a WOMEN’S HEALTH CENTER.  What could possibly be the problem?

Soon after that conversation, my relationship with my boss began to sour.  Time and time again I finished a project, only to find her upset that it wasn’t the way she wanted it. She changed her mind constantly (sometimes without informing staff), would only discuss things verbally  and refused to clarify directions via email.  When I explained that I was having trouble keeping up with the rapidly changing directions, she replied, “What I want may change from the time you leave my desk to the time you get to your desk. That’s just the way things work around here.  Use your best judgment.”   I furiously scribbled her instructions in meetings and even considered surreptitiously recording our meetings to double check. Confused and frustrated, I just kept trying to do my best.

The week after Simon’s due date came and went, my boss she sent me a rare email.  It itemized concerns she had about minor tasks that were still pending. I was surprised to get an email, but was grateful for something concrete.  Looking back at the email, I realize I should have been more concerned than grateful.   An outside reader would have no perspective on the importance of the tasks being discussed so it looked like I was doing a horrible job.

A few days after getting that email, Simon was born. I took my leave and 6 weeks later, came back to work.  There were no major crises, everyone seemed happy to have me back and I slowly picked up the pieces that had been delegated out.  Things weren’t great with my boss, but everyone else seemed to be struggling with her too.  I had been back to work for approximately two and a half months when Simon got sick.

I took two weeks off while we assessed how serious his condition was. At the end of the two weeks, Simon had stabilized but it was clear that we were going to be in the hospital for a very long time.  Despite every cell in my body screaming that I belonged in the hospital with my family, it was time to go back to work. 
I negotiated a few weeks of coming back part-time until we had a sense of what was going to happen with Simon.  During that time, I repeatedly tried to get clarification about priorities for my work projects so that I could maximize the hours I was there. I was told that they were all priorities, nothing would be taken off my plate and that they all needed to get done.

As the end of my agreed upon part-time period approached, my boss and I met again.  I proposed a few options that might help me be present for my family and still produce at work.   They were rejected immediately- I would not be allowed to continue to work part time and I could not work remotely one day a week, even though a few other folks in the agency worked remotely. My boss earnestly added, “I think coming back to work full-time will be a good thing for you.  A few good successes at work will really help you feel better.”  Oh, right, I was hysterically sobbing in a hospital parking lot at the end of every day because I wasn’t kicking ass at work.  Silly me.

I realized now that that she thought she was hiring a workaholic who would sacrifice everything, including her family, for her career.   When I decided to take leave when Simon was born and again asked for accommodation when he got sick, she realized I was not the person who would sacrifice everything for my job.  I honestly think that if she had been in my shoes, a few good successes at work at the expense of her spouse and child WOULD have made her feel better.  In some strange way, it was comforting to know that I was disappointing her.  My biggest fear and question about becoming a parent and a wife was if I would be able to prioritize my family over my career.  I was getting a clearer answer to that question.

I’m pretty clear the email she sent me just before I went out on leave when Simon was born was to have “proof” for why she was getting rid of me. When I came back while Simon was in the hospital, she continued to create situations in which it was impossible to succeed. Evidently my having a critically ill child was not going to interrupt her plans to force me out.

When I returned full-time, the vice squeezed tighter and tighter. Finally, at my parent’s insistence, I contacted an employment attorney.  The lawyer agreed to work on my case immediately.  The best part was that she would work on contingency- i.e. she would only get paid if we went to court and we won.

A few days after engaging the attorney all hell broke loose. I was on a break in my office with the door closed and on the phone with my attorney.  Without warning or knocking, my boss swung the door wide open and started rifling through binders in cupboard next to my desk.  I paused my conversation to ask her if I could help her find anything.  She replied, “No”, and continued to slam cupboard doors and pull binders out and slam them on the counter.  Then, she turned to me abruptly and spat out, “Is there something going on that I should know about?”

Careful not to cover the receiver so the attorney could hear everything, I calmly replied, “No, I’m just on a break and on a call.  I will be off in just a minute and then I’d be happy to help you find whatever you were looking for.”  She glared at me and ordered, “Come into my office when you’re done. We need to talk!” and slammed the door on her way out.    With a shaking voice, I whispered to the attorney, “Did you hear all that?”  She had. She warned me to document everything as carefully as possible and to call her if anything else happened.

I sat down in front of my boss’s desk and she shoved a document at me. I was being put on probation for poor job performance.  When I asked how long she had had concerns about my performance she replied 6-12 months.  I had just sent the attorney my last performance review conducted less than a year before and it had been stellar.   I was too shocked to ask any questions and too angry to risk saying anything. Shaking, I left her office and stepped outside to call my attorney.  She advised me to send her a copy of the probation document and ask for a few days to review it.

The next day, my boss and I met with Human Resources.  I entered the meeting hopeful that a neutral, reasonable person would be able to see how insane this situation was.  Instead, the meeting started off with the HR rep telling me she hadn’t been sure that it was even legal to take my paid family leave when Simon got hospitalized since I was just providing “psychological support”.  My mouth literally dropped open as I realized what she was saying. In her eyes I wasn’t Simon’s real parent and was just providing “psychological support” to Laura.  She quickly added that her research showed that it was, in fact, a legal use of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  The fact that this high ranking HR agent didn’t know the basics about FMLA terrified me.

I sat back and tried to look confident but I was in a cold sweat and my legs were shivering uncontrollably under the table.  The rest of the meeting was a blur.  It was clear my boss had been planning this for a long time.  I left knowing that I had to leave my job and I had to do it quickly.  It didn’t matter that my son was in the ICU.  If I didn’t get out, I was going to get fired.

I searched for a few weeks until I saw a posting for a job at a health department.  It included that the position would report to someone whom I had worked with peripherally years before (and liked!).   My heart flooded with hope.      

I applied for the job and was scheduled for an interview on November 5th.   As the day approached, our lives began to look more and more hopeful.  We were given a tentative discharge date for a few days after the interview.  The election would take place the day after the interview and it looked like Obama might actually get elected.  I had decided to leave my job no matter what and stopped feeling so terrified.  Things were finally turning around.

On Monday November 3rd Simon started getting fussy. By the next day, he was diagnosed with gram-negative sepsis from an infection in his Broviac line (a really awful bacterial infection in the IV that was going into his central vein).  They started him on powerful antibiotics and told us he should start feeling better by the next day.   We were nervous but grateful that they had identified the bacteria and were starting treatment.  This was just a little bump in the road.

Two days later, on November 5th, the bottom dropped out. Dressed in my best suit for my interview, I walked into the ICU to see Simon before starting my day. It was quiet.  Way too quiet.  I peered into the crib to look at my son.  He was grey and still.  His lips were blue. If he hadn’t had a heart monitor on, I would have been very, very sure he was dead.

We could barely rouse him enough to open his eyes.  I tried not to panic.  I needed to reschedule my interview and face the consequences of missing another day of work.  There was no way I could leave with him looking like this.  Laura saw my expression and came over and gently took my face in both her hands.  “You have to go to this interview, Jaime.  The best thing you can do for this family is get out there and kick some ass and get that job”, she said firmly.

I knew she was right and I couldn’t imagine leaving him looking like this.  I lay over Simon’s little body and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.  Even though I didn’t think he would understand me, I whispered my apologies into his tiny ear.   “Hold on, little boy”, I begged,  “Just hold on until I get back.”   I dried my tears, straightened my back and walked out of the ICU determined to do what I needed to do.
I have no idea how, but I made it through the interview.  I went back to work and pretended like everything was fine.  Laura called me in the mid-afternoon to tell me that I should come back to the hospital.  Afraid of the consequences of leaving work AGAIN but more afraid of the consequences of not getting to the hospital, I left.

As I greeted our nurse on my way to Simon’s bay, I stopped in my tracks.  She looked scared.  “How bad is it?” I asked?  She grimly said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not looking good.  I’ve have an urgent call into the resident.”

Within an hour of my arrival, Simon started vomiting and pooping what looked like reddish-black coffee grounds.  Our nurse visibly blanched and literally ran to get a doctor.   The doctor determined that the antibiotics being used to treat Simon’s sepsis had interacted with Coumadin, his blood thinner. The feeding tube threaded through his nose into his stomach had torn the stomach lining and he couldn’t clot.  He had been slowly bleeding to death since yesterday.

Within fifteen minutes a team moved Simon back into the main ICU and started a blood transfusion. His body responded immediately and within an hour, he was warm and pink and hungrily sucking on a bottle, something he hadn’t done in weeks.  By the next night, we were back in our regular spot in the step-down unit just in time to hear the cheers echoing throughout the hospital as Obama declared the winner of the presidential election.  I began to feel the faint flicker of hope again.  If Simon could bounce back from this so fast and we could get a black Democratic president elected, maybe there was a chance I could get this job. 

Evidently I pulled it together well enough for my first interview, because they brought me back for a second interview.  Things at work were horrendous but deciding that I wasn't going to take it anymore helped me make it through each day.  Simon kept improving and we waited with crossed fingers to get a release date.  After my second interview, I waited on pins and needles to find out whether or not I would need to stay on the job hunt.  

The week before Thanksgiving, we got everything we hoped for.   On Thursday November 20th Simon came home and the next day I was offered the job.  It was a 40% pay cut if you factored in the decrease in salary and increase in cost of benefits but it was a job in public health with a boss I could verify was not a crazy tyrant.

Four years ago today I made the hardest decision of my life when I left for that interview.  I didn’t know that I would end up with a great job and a boss that understands that in a crisis, family comes first.  I didn’t know that things were about to get better and that Simon would get out of the hospital in a matter of weeks.  All I could see was a still grey baby and hear my wife cheering for me amidst the chaos.  Laura, I am forever grateful to you for making me go to that interview that day.  We made the right decision.  

Post script: The attorney didn’t think our chances were good for winning a lawsuit so we asked for a settlement.  The company ignored the requests.  When that process was over, I filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. They took my case, with four specific claims, but after a year of investigation, they determined there wasn’t enough evidence to make a determination. I was left with the option to sue but decided to just let it go.  Life is too short.

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