Sharon’s story: Choosing between work and family

From the Coalition for a Healthy Tacoma

As the eldest of two children and a registered nurse, Sharon took on many added responsibilities when her father began his battle with cancer in 2007. She never expected her employer of 19 years, a Tacoma-area hospital, to be anything less than supportive – until she started taking time off.

Sharon, a nurse with 39 years of experience, wanted to be there for her father. But his condition was difficult and unpredictable. He was in immense pain, had fainting spells, and sometimes required unscheduled emergency medical treatment. “Sometimes he needed to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. We had to be there to talk to the doctors to know what was going on. That was our dad.”

Despite Sharon’s 19-year employment history with the hospital, and lots of support from coworkers, she was warned numerous times by her employer to decrease her ‘excessive absenteeism.’ “I was told in an evaluation I was using too many sick days, and as I was a weekend supplemental nurse, they could just not use me if I continued to ‘abuse.’ They would remove me from the schedule.”

Then in November 2007, Sharon was involved in a serious automobile accident, and the stress began to mount.  “I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. As I was laying there and talking with my son, I became afraid of losing my job. My accident was on a Friday, which meant I would miss my shift. I started crying.” However, Sharon was able to contact her boss, who assured her he would not fire her.

After the accident, Sharon’s father continued having health problems, and her ‘excessive absenteeism’ was brought to her attention for the second time during her January 2008 evaluation. She again explained to her manager that she was caring for her father while he battled cancer. Sharon’s father passed away a few months later in April 2008.

During her January 2009 evaluation, Sharon’s supervisor raised the issue of her excessive sick leave in the past 2 years for the third time. Her total: 10 sick days over a 16 month period. “I could only reply, ‘it was when my dad was dying.’ ” Though Sharon was never fired from her position, she eventually left for a new job because of the stress and negative effect on her personal and professional life.

Balancing her work and family obligations would not have been so difficult for Sharon if her employer allowed more workplace flexibility and did not penalize her for using the sick leave she had earned. Without that added job stress, Sharon’s own health would have been better and she would have been more productive when at work during her father’s final illness.

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