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Dad loses job -- and insurance Father blames firing on his son`s illness

Al Musella's Comments: (This is his personal views and are not necessarily the views of the Musella Foundation!)


Posted on: 08/06/2002

Dad loses job -- and insurance

Father blames firing on his son's illness

By Gregory Weaver

August 04, 2002

A year into his young son's fight with cancer, Todd Farmer lost his job and his insurance coverage.

He believes he was fired from Sovereign Tool in Muncie because his employer didn't want to continue paying 4-year-old Robert's mounting hospital bills for a recurring brain tumor.

"It was a dirty thing to do," said Farmer, shaking his head in disgust. "The last thing we needed to do was worry about money at a time like this."

Farmer's former boss, Steve Stage, said the company sympathizes with the family's plight, but he contends legitimate job-related issues led to Farmer's dismissal in February.

A judge ultimately may decide who's right. Farmer filed suit in U.S. District Court last month, claiming he was fired because of his son's illness.

But justice may not come soon enough for Robert, a truck-and-tractor-loving boy.

Doctors twice have removed a tennis-ball-sized tumor from the left side of Robert's brain, only to see it return.

Now they have concluded that this aggressive form of cancer can't be stopped.

The surgeries and rounds of radiation therapy six days a week have taken their toll. At times, Robert has slept 20 hours a day to deal with exhaustion.

But Robert's resiliency and lust for life continue to amaze his parents and doctors.

"They were afraid he wouldn't be able to walk or talk for a while after his first surgery," recalled Robert's mother, Dannie. "But he woke up screaming: 'I want my mom and some French toast.' "

Robert is feeling a bit better now that his second round of radiation therapy has ended.

At his family's Middletown home, Robert plays trucks with his 2-year-old brother, Thomas, and climbs atop his father's shoulders for a quick ride around the living room.

But his parents know this playful period will be short-lived. Doctors have given the boy four to five months to live.

A trip to Disney World, courtesy of the Indiana Children's Wish Fund, helped take their minds off their troubles last month.

But now it's back to worrying about how to make Robert comfortable -- and how to make ends meet now that Todd Farmer has a tool-and-die job that pays only half what he made at Sovereign.

To the folks at the American Cancer Society, the Farmers' story is all too familiar.

Several times a month, the society's hot line receives calls from workers who are fired shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes, the news comes shortly before they are wheeled into the operating room.

"It's horrific," said society spokesman Gary McMullen. "There aren't nearly enough protections in the law. We'd like to see that issue addressed so people dealing with a major illness aren't discriminated against based solely on that disease."

The protections are particularly slim for workers at small businesses. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child or for medical emergencies, applies only to businesses that employ 50 or more.

Farmer acknowledged that Sovereign, with just under 50 workers, probably wasn't obligated to provide him with medical leave. But he said the only times he unexpectedly missed work were when Robert became sick overnight from his radiation treatments.

"I'd always call in and let them know I had to take my boy to the hospital, and they'd say, 'No problem,' " Farmer recalled.

"Robert was in the hospital 145 days last year, and I only missed six or seven days of work. I missed less work than some of the guys who are still there. I couldn't afford to miss that much work because we needed the money and we needed the insurance."

But after more than two years on the job -- and after his company's insurer had paid nearly $600,000 in medical bills for Robert -- Farmer was fired on Feb. 1.

Farmer said his dismissal came just two weeks after a supervisor began asking questions about his son's condition -- precisely a year after the boy had been diagnosed with cancer.

"When I asked why he was asking, he said, 'Well, we're looking at insurance stuff.' Then he walked away."

Farmer also contends he never received any written warnings about his job performance, even though his employee handbook called for that sort of discipline in advance of firing.

"There was no warning, no nothing. They just called me in at the end of my shift and let me go."

Based on those allegations, Farmer has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the company discriminated against him because of his son's illness and denied him insurance benefits protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

He also has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. That claim, which is expected to be added to the lawsuit, contends Farmer was discriminated against because of his son's cancer-related disabilities.

Stage, vice president and general manager at Sovereign Tool, declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding Farmer's dismissal but strongly argued that it was handled appropriately and lawfully.

"As a father myself, my heart and sympathies go out to Todd and his family," Stage said.

"Out of respect for Todd and the difficult situation they are in right now, Sovereign is unwilling to publicly discuss Todd's separation from our company," he said. "We feel we handled everything appropriately and went as far as we could in terms of performance."

Bill Groth, the Farmers' seasoned labor lawyer, scoffed at such a notion. "It's really one of the most cruel and callous determinations I've seen in all my years of practice," he said.

The Farmers' legal claims aren't uncommon.

Two years ago, similar claims against Greenfield-based Service Engineering Inc. were resolved out of court after U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton cleared the case for trial.

In that case, Robert Jackson alleged he was fired from Service Engineering because the company no longer wanted to pay the health insurance costs for his wife, Marcella, after she received a costly liver transplant.

The company has denied the allegations, and neither side would discuss the out-of-court resolution.

Attorney Denise LaRue, who represented the Jacksons, said health discrimination cases are as difficult to prove as prejudicial job actions based on race or gender.

"Rarely do you have a situation where an employer comes right out and says, 'We're letting you go because of your child's high medical bills,' " LaRue said. "So what you have to focus on is the circumstantial evidence and the suspicious timing of certain events."

One fact that may weaken the Farmers' case is that Sovereign didn't fire the father immediately after it became aware of the son's catastrophic illness, said attorney Melissa Proffitt Reese, who advises businesses on benefits law.

That, in itself, makes Farmer's firing appear less than capricious, she said.

"A potential legitimate argument on the company's part could be that this is all very tragic, but as an employer it has a right to have an employee who can perform the job," Reese said. "They don't have to allow an employee a year to deal with the sickness of a child, although you will find different employers who will."

Legal arguments ultimately will determine whether Farmer should be entitled to return to his job or receive monetary damages from his former employer. But friends, relatives and strangers already have pitched in in a big way.

In May, a rummage and bake sale in Markleville raised more than $10,000 for the family, and contributions trickle in to the Robert Farmer Trust Fund.

Among the donations was a $1,000 personal check from Stage, a gesture that the Sovereign Tool executive declined to discuss.

Farmer said he is thankful for all of the donations because they have allowed the family to stay current on their bills and their mortgage.

But he admits to being disturbed by Stage's donation.

"Why turn a guy loose and then a few months later start feeling bad and throw some money his way?" asked Farmer. "At first, I wanted to give it back. But we needed the money, so I wasn't going to feel that way about it for very long."

Farmer said he was unemployed for less than a day after Sovereign fired him in February. Within a few hours, a former co-worker who had started a tool-and-die business in Anderson offered him a job.

He's grateful for the work. But the new job pays only about half of what he was earning at Sovereign, so finances have been tight. His new employer also doesn't provide health insurance, so he had to buy private coverage for himself and his wife.

Medicaid and other government programs have picked up the boys' insurance costs.

But the worries linger as Robert heads into his final months, and his parents try to make them as fulfilling and comfortable as possible.

"Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I think it's all just a bad dream," Todd Farmer said.

"But what it is is one heckuva roller-coaster ride -- emotionally, financially and on an everyday basis. And it's not over yet."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Call Gregory Weaver at 1-317- 444-6415.

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