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Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Fighting for Their Lives--and Livelihoods

Many lower-income women with breast cancer find themselves struggling with jobs as well as the disease. That's when the Breast Cancer Legal Clinic steps in.

October 12, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All she wanted was a stool to lean against and a sip of water when she needed it. That's all Ofelia Askren--and her doctor--said she needed to get through her seven-hour shift at the cash register and take home her $6.15 an hour.

It was the summer of 1996, and by then, the cancer had claimed both her breasts. But the 42-year-old mother of two was doing well after chemotherapy. Although she had no hair or eyebrows, she felt able and eager to work.

"The fact is, I had to work," Askren says. "Cancer or not, I had bills to pay, like everybody else."

But despite her doctor's recommendations, her supervisor was not convinced of the need for accommodations, Askren would later charge in an employment discrimination complaint she filed against the U.S. Navy Exchange. Her boss not only refused Askren's requests for water breaks and something to lean on, but transferred Askren to the high-volume express lane, Askren charges.

In the early afternoon of her third day at the express register, Askren collapsed.

"I had gone 3 1/2 hours with no water, no break, when I went rigid--in spasm, they called it. I couldn't move, I couldn't even open my eyes, but I could hear them debating what to do with me.

"I'm thinking I am going to die and I can hear someone say, 'You should call her husband,' and someone else argue, 'No, call the ambulance.' "

Askren finally was taken by ambulance to the hospital and admitted. When she returned to work the following month, Askren and her attorneys say she was asked to sign a negative evaluation of her job performance. She refused and was fired. Later, she received a $750 bill for the ambulance.

Brand-New Legal Resource Guide

When women with breast cancer are fighting for their lives, they don't have much left to fight for their legal rights as well. Enter the Breast Cancer Legal Clinic--the only clinic in the nation to provide free legal help statewide to low-income women with breast cancer.

In conjunction with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the clinic today released its first Legal Resource Guide, available free to women with breast cancer. Founded in 1995 by the 10-year-old nonprofit California Women's Law Center, the clinic has helped more than 650 women--including Askren--fight battles for fair treatment on the job, in housing and in issues involving insurance, debt collection and child custody.

In Askren's claim against the Navy Exchange, M. Michelle Alvarez of the Los Angeles law firm Latham & Watkins volunteered her time to help Askren prepare her administrative complaints against her former employer. The Navy has denied wrongdoing. While declining to comment specifically on Askren's complaint, Geoffrey Klein, the Navy Exchanges's human resources chief, said: "We have and always will accommodate any employee if it's a reasonable request."

Askren is pursuing her case in federal district court.

"Years ago, we found out that for many, many women disabled by breast cancer, the pain of cancer was nothing compared to dealing with the legal issues," says Susan Berke Fogel, the center's legal director. "We see women whose ex-husbands suddenly appear to seek custody of young children and claim the mother, because she is battling breast cancer, is no longer a fit mom. We see women financially destroyed by the disease, emotionally devastated by what happens to them at work, and, of course, those who are too sick to fight for the insurance coverage and medical care they have a right to."

Jobs Gone After Cancer Treatment

Belinda (not her real name) has been living with breast cancer for five years. She was working for a well-known cosmetics company at a national department store when she took a leave to undergo a mastectomy and treatment. When she returned to her job selling silky skin creams and pricey makeup, she was told she could no longer represent the company's product line because, her attorney says, "she no longer fit the company's beauty image."

Charlotte, 56, had put in 18 years as a billing clerk at a Los Angeles area firm. But while she was out on disability after breast cancer surgery, her position was eliminated--a fact she didn't discover until a year later when she returned to her job and found she had none.

A 41-year-old postal worker who had lost a breast and lymph glands to surgery was told by her doctor she needed an expensive therapeutic elastic sleeve to control the swelling caused by her lymphedema, a side effect of her mastectomy. She was denied coverage for the sleeve by her insurance carrier. Without it, her arm filled with fluid. The swelling made it impossible for her to move her arm and do her job.

And then there is the woman who, after her cancer surgery, could no longer drive. All she wanted from her employer was a different shift so she could carpool. The employer ignored her request and, when she didn't show up for work, fired her. Breast Cancer Legal Clinic attorneys, who work pro bono, helped her file a discrimination complaint, which is pending.

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