When I was injured in January and not able to work full time, I started using Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time. For those who are not familiar – as I was not before my injury – FMLA is a federally mandated program that requires employers to give employees time off work when they or their family member experiences a serious injury or illness. It is not paid time off, but it does allows someone to keep their job while they are, say, going through cancer treatments or caring for a parent who is slowly fading. FMLA lasts for 12 weeks, or 480 work hours, and was such a blessing. I could work as much as I was able, charging the difference between my full time schedule and what I was able to work to FMLA. With some dedication and hard work, I was able to stretch out FMLA from February to August 2014.
In August, all of my FMLA time was used up. The less flexible side of my employer’s policies reared up in my life. Since my employer, the State of Vermont, has no “light duty” or temporary part-time options available for full time positions, once FMLA time was used up, the choice was between an unpaid medical leave of absence or filing a request for Reasonable Accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
I enjoyed working. Why wouldn’t I continue? Sure, I could not work full time right now, but I could work part time and get important things done. Yes, my coworkers had to cover some of my responsibilities. If I have to stop work for an unpaid medical leave of absence… then I wouldn’t be doing any work, and my coworkers would have to do it ALL. Did that make any sense? No, I did not think so either.
Now, for all that I was injured and have been impaired for months, it was hard for me to wrap my head around stating – in writing – that I am disabled. Disabled? No, I am fine, thanks. Yes, I can not work full time, I have mental fatigue that overwhelms me after an hour or two of thinking… but disabled? No, not me. Framing my experience as the experience of a disabled person was discordant – I had never considered myself that way. I did not feel like a disabled person. However, State of Vermont policy said I either had to stop working (and stop making money) or claim to be disabled and file a request for reasonable accommodation.
Time to fill out my first ADA request form! Only, I did not know anything about ADA. As someone who deals with environmental regulations every day, I know that every law has it’s quirks, it’s vocabulary, it’s tricky lines delineating yes or no. With the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), it is all about whether a effect is “significant”, with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), judgment centers around whether an action is an “undertaking” and whether there is an “adverse effect”. I have used and studied these laws for years, and know how to meet regulatory requirements. However, I had no information about ADA.
My default information gathering techniques were not available to me. I did not have the mental capacity to read the entire law, as I might normally have done for something so important. I could not casually scan the internet and read bits from a dozen different articles to get a feel for what information was out there – that set my head buzzing and made me nauseous. In August, reading for content was difficult. I could read something written down, but understanding the underlying meanings of the information was impossible for me… as was remembering the main points of the article itself a day later. What I needed were people who used ADA all the time, people who knew what they were talking about, who I could trust, who could do my thinking for me.
I contacted my Union, Employee Assistance Program, the VT Human Rights Commission, the VT Disability Law Project, and VT Vocational Rehabilitation. It is easy to write all that down in this one sentence, but it was anything but easy. Days of effort, several weeks for me to make all of these calls. First, I had to find the contact information on the internet, then find a time where I was mentally competent and confident enough to have a phone conversation. Usually I did not have success with my first contact, and had either to call back or was referred to someone else who I again needed to explain myself to.
It was a nightmare. Plain and simple, it was truly outside of my ability. My partner, Mary, was overbusy with work and coordinating the purchase of our house and did not have the bandwidth to do it FOR me. She helped me daily, but the onus of making it happen remained upon me. My closest friend was on the other side of the continent and detailed legal interpretation was not his strength. My counselor helped me talk through some of my options, thankfully. Somehow, I muddled through it on my own. I really could have used a personal assistant then – someone of quality mental ability to do the research and help me make the contacts – but I did not have one. I recommend a personal assistant to all those with a brain injury. That would have been FABulous.
The organization that really came through for me is Vermont Legal Aid. They have the Vermont Disability Law Project and attorney Barbara Prine. She was so helpful and competent. In her, I found someone I could trust, someone who could really, truly help me.
After talking with Barb, I filled out the ADA Reasonable Accommodation form. It surprised me that I was not suppose to explain my injury on the ADA form – I was only suppose to speak of the functional limitations caused by my condition. I have since learned that it is standard for ADA Reasonable Accommodations to share information about limitations or accommodations needed, but not the actual diagnosis that makes such things necessary. So, the State of Vermont Reasonable Accommodation Committee did not know I had post concussion syndrome (officially, anyway), they simply knew I had fatigue which limited my ability to think and work.
From there proceeded an extensive back and forth with the State of Vermont, involving an in-person meeting and multiple telephone conferences – all part of the ADA “interactive process”. I will not get into all of it here, right now (maybe later). I will say that it is a slow process. My first request was submitted in August, and it was not all said and done until this past Friday, December 12th.
The long and short of it is that the State determined that I was disabled,
but that my request for accommodation was unreasonable.
Simply put, the State does not believe I can meet the workload expectations of a full time job in 25 or 32 hours a week. And, as of today, I am not able to work full time – even with a flexible schedule and working from home.
So, tomorrow, Monday, brings a brave new frontier. Life without paid work five days out of seven. No place to be, nothing to do at any particular time. I am curious how this will unfold. I think the last time I had a break like this was summers in grade school, where there were weeks and weeks of unstructured time. Now, as an adult, I am use to working a good chunk of my day. No more – and not for the next seven weeks.
I would love suggestions of activities for the next chunk of time – please post in comments! I do have physical / mental limitations, so I cannot travel more than a few hours from home, and can not do something that is extremely physically challenging at all, nor moderately challenging for more than 30 minutes.
On the plus side, FMLA resets itself each 12 month period, so February 4, 2015, I will again have 480 hours of FMLA to use. My leave will be done, and I will again start working part-time. Thank the Goddess for that.