A Preventable Tragedy

The display of indifference to human suffering by Alameda police and firemen during the drowning of Raymond Zack is reminiscent of a case I handled in Contra Costa County.

On July 19, 2009, I begged the Human Resources Director to use “wise managerial discretion in preventing what could be a catastrophic mistake should XXX deteriorate to an irreversible physical condition.” As union steward, I was writing a letter on behalf of a county employee of the Employment and Human Services Department who was experiencing major life difficulties.

In a one and a half-year period, XXX saw the death of her mother and brother, hospitalization of her husband and foreclosure of her home. The string of tragedies weakened her physical and emotional well-being resulting in frequent absences from work. Due to the absences, her salary was not enough to cover a $24.61 automatic deduction payment share towards her medical insurance, a benefit available to all county employees.

The County Auditor sent a deficit notice to her foreclosed home even though the paycheck issued by the same County Auditor had always been sent to her work. Unaware of the situation, XXX made no payment and her medical insurance was cancelled. According to county policy, it could not be re-instated until the next benefit enrollment period one year later.

XXX faced an impossible vicious cycle. She needed daily medication to function. Without medical insurance she had to buy her own medicine. However, without medication, she was too sick to work and earn enough money to pay for medication. In desperation, XXX applied for Medi-Cal from the very department she worked in. XXX was told in a denial letter that since her employer provided medical insurance, she was not entitled to public assistance.

I was called to represent XXX for excessive absences. I appealed for re-instatement of her medical insurance as a solution to her attendance issues. I sent, via certified mail, my own personal check to pay for the unpaid balance. The check was returned.

For one year, XXX struggled with sporadic work attendance. When benefit enrollment time came, she was eager to again receive medical insurance and, finally, resolve medical and attendance issues. However, simultaneous to the re-instatement of her medical insurance, XXX was fired for excessive absences. Again, I begged; this time, to the Director of the Employment and Human Services Department, for a one month chance to prove that, with medical insurance and medication, XXX can maintain acceptable attendance.

To all efforts, I repeatedly heard a resounding “NO” from the Human Resources Director, Personnel Benefits Manager, Director and Assistant Director of Employment and Human Services Department, the five members of the Merit Board and the State Administrative Law Judge.

Employment termination was not the final tragedy. XXX died in February 2011 at the age of 42; apparently from irreversible deterioration of her physical condition.

Sadly, we cannot undo her untimely death. We can only hope for a county government that does not enshrine callous protocol and policy over justice and compassion.

Cynthia Ruehlig

No Comments so far.

Leave a Reply