I celebrated my 60th birthday and my 25-year job anniversary the same year my employer accepted billions of TARP money. And then, on a bright July morning, I was laid off.
I could pretend that it was because business was changing, as the notice letter said, or that there was a need to make more cuts, as my manager—I’ll call him John—explained to me, but I knew better. The company I worked for had reported profits that quarter. On the other hand, trouble had been brewing around me for months and I knew that my position would be eliminated as soon as it was safe to let go of an older woman with a disabling condition.
Earlier that year, a departmental restructure had brought in a new management team that believed in aggressive deadlines and absolute job dedication.
“I come in at 7 a.m.,” John explained to our team as a manner of introduction, “and I leave at 7 or 8 at night. And if something needs to be done during the weekend, I make myself available.”
At first, I stood up to them. “I have a medical condition,” I said to John. No, I cannot work 12-hour days. No, I cannot be available day and night, weekdays and weekends, at the ring of a cell phone or the touch of a remote connection.
“Everyone in this business unit is ranked according to a Bell curve,” John replied, “and every year, 10 percent of employees are rated as ‘need improvement.’” If I couldn’t meet expectations, I would automatically fall into that category and then, “When it’s time to decide on raises or when it’s time to reduce the work force, well,” he added, letting the obvious answers hang at the tip of his outstretched hands, palms up, in a nothing-I-can-do-about-it gesture. He had the flat emotionless tone and the slight smirk that showed up whenever he set ambitious expectations or redefined goals. That’s the way it was going to be. Period.
I had worked as a computer programmer for all of the 12 years I had multiple sclerosis, and had always received satisfactory reviews and raises. Now, for the first time, I needed to find out what my rights were. The country has laws to protect the disabled, doesn’t it? Multiple sclerosis is recognized as a disabling condition, right? It does and it is, but the protection that offers is, as I discovered to my dismay, very limited.
According to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), a company should make reasonable accommodations to ensure that an employee with a disability can perform her job. So if someone uses a wheelchair, the employer should provide a desk space wide enough to accommodate it. If an individual’s vision is impaired, the employer should provide large character software.
My drop foot and weak right leg make me limp but they don’t prevent me from sitting at a computer terminal, and the numbness in my fingers doesn’t affect my typing abilities. And I can focus, concentrate and multitask as well as any of my peers. But I do get tired. Fatigue is my vulnerability. I need a regular workday and enough rest in order to tackle the next day’s workload.
I also get an injection several times a week. That requires that I medicate myself an hour before, that it be done at a scheduled time and early enough in the evening so that the flu-like symptoms it generates have time to dissipate before the next morning. How could I factor that into 12-hour workdays?
Also under the ADA law, an employee must be able to perform the job functions she was hired for. If I were an hourly employee, I couldn’t be forced to work overtime. But I was a salaried employee. The definition of my responsibilities was “job done,” and if that meant long days and weekend work, as the new management team expected, that’s what I should be able to do. I wasn’t sick enough to go on disability, but not well enough to be recognized as a competent employee.
What did other people with MS do in those situations, I wondered? I roamed the blogs and talked to my friends, hoping for guidance, but found out that there was no simple answer. Some had understanding managers who accommodated their needs or helped them obtain a disability status. Some worked as hard as they were expected to and lived with the consequences. And some quit or were laid off, many falling into destitution and despair as a result.
“Compromise,” the counselor from the MS Society told me after reviewing my situation with a lawyer. “Arrange to work from home several days a week and use the hours saved from traveling to accomplish more of your tasks.”
This would help, but it wouldn’t be enough for a manager who equaled “job done” with “whatever it takes.”
A compromise of sort is also what my manager offered me after I discussed the issue with the Human Resources department. “It’s best if you look for an internal transfer,” he said. “But not in IT,” he added, showing not one iota of appreciation for my skills and my years of experience, “that won’t work for you.”
So I set out to look for another position and found out that, even in this difficult economy, there were several thousand openings. But few were in the location I worked at, (was I willing to move to Mumbai?) and, of those, many were IT related. I knew that even if I got an interview and did well, a single phone call to John was all it would take to dismiss my candidacy. All I was left with were entry-level jobs which would mean a huge pay cut, or training for a different career; neither of which I was willing to do as I was entering my 7th decade.
I trudged along then, working hard while keeping a close watch at both my health and the milestones our team reached. Would I be dismissed after we completed an upgrade to new software, after important tasks were automated, after routine activities were transferred to another group?
But how could they not need me anymore when I was so busy, all day, every day, and when there was so much more work to be done?
I also went through endless mental calculations. How much money would my husband and I need to live comfortably now that he was retired, our children were grown and we had no large debt to worry about? How much longer would I actually need to work? My husband would get Medicare in seven months; I could collect early social security in ten. Would I get affordable medical coverage as a retiree? Would the Obama health plan pass congress and would it be good enough to make a difference?
When John stopped at my desk that July morning and said, “May I talk to you for a minute,” I knew what it was about and I was ready. I understood that my fate had been sealed the moment I said, “I have a medical condition.”
Using the excuse of the economic situation to lay me off was not simply about the new management team’s expectations. The company was taking advantage of the business climate to get rid of employees who were considered trouble, who earned too much, or who did not fit into the mold. In light of my fine working record, finding a reason to let me go would have taken longer and would have been hard to prove. Letting me go with a package was quicker and it eliminated the possibility of a legal case because of age, gender or disability discrimination. The language of the notice letter was tight in that regard. To protest, comment, publicize or disclose any of it would make me lose the benefits I was getting.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that when a door closes another one opens, as many of my friends told me. But I do think that I was lucky. The best thing would have been for me to choose when I wanted to stop working. The next best thing was to be laid off and get a few months of severance pay followed by 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Together they would bridge us to our 7- and 10-month family milestones. We would not be rich but we would be OK. Compared to families with young children, credit card debt and a mortgage, we were fine.
That evening, my husband took me out to dinner to a family-run restaurant with a friendly Provence atmosphere and the best desserts in the neighborhood. Later I sent a collective email to my children and their spouses. “My job problems are solved,” I wrote. “Cheers.” Better to welcome the next phase of my life.
Before going to bed, I turned off the clock radio. For decades, I had woken every weekday at 6:15 a.m. to weather and traffic conditions, but now my time was mine. I could read late into the night and wake up late in the morning. I could spend lots of time with my grandchildren and my friends. I could be active on issues that mattered to me and do more than signing petitions and sending emails in support of a healthcare public option, more to combat climate change beside using reusable bags and shopping locally. And I could work to improve job protection for people with disabilities.
I thought of my friend and coworker—I’ll call her Sally—who had helped me empty my desk that morning. She was well aware that the workload had not changed and that, with one less person in the team, more duties would fall on her already overburdened schedule.
“It might not feel this way to you right now,” she said, “but you are the lucky one.”
Again, I thought of the possibilities now opened in front of me, the chance to rediscover my aspirations, the time to deepen my commitments. And MS would not be a hindrance. It left me with plenty of strengths; strengths that I had mobilized over the years to remain a diligent and effective employee and that I would now garner to reach my redefined goals.
Emily Azur is the pen name the author uses to avoid retribution from her former employer. She is delighted with her new found free time and continues to enjoy life.