I have spent most of my life dealing with the issue of smoking in one way or another. Raised in a smoking household, I suffered from asthma and allergies throughout my formative years. As an adult, I was forced to confront smokers in my workplace when I suffered through long periods of illness as a result of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS). In September, 1987, I was hired as a Financial Analyst, making $20,000 a year, at Standard Federal Savings Bank (SFSB) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Just two months later, the level of smoking at work was severe enough to send me to the doctor s office with a lung infection. I had complained about the smoking for several weeks, but my manager said he could not provide me with any accommodations for my sensitivity to cigarette smoke unless I brought him a physician s statement spelling out my need for a smoke-free work area. For the next 5 years, I would plead constantly with SFSB, to provide me with a smoke-free work area. During that time, I furnished them with seven physician s statements attesting to my history of asthma-related illness. All were ignored.
In March, 1990, Montgomery County instituted a ban on smoking in area workplaces, while a similar ban went into effect for the City of Gaithersburg. In response, the bank amended its written policies to restrict smoking to outside areas only. And still, the smoking continued unabated. When I tried to complain to the appropriate government officials, I could find no one at the city, county or state level willing to enforce the no-smoking legislation. Likewise, no one in authority at SFSB would confront the issue of unchecked smoking at the office. Meanwhile, I continued to suffer through extended periods of illness, often being forced to work at home when the level of smoke became intolerable.
In October, 1992, the bank was placed into conservatorship by the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), and the level of smoking in the building increased substantially. Despite numerous signs posted on all floors, the same government officials sent in to protect the taxpayers interests would not comply with the laws banning workplace smoking. And, even though I reminded the RTC about both the no-smoking ordinance and the written policy on several occasions immediately after the take-over, the smoking did not stop. As a result, I became increasingly ill whenever exposed to cigarette smoke at work. I suffered through upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, walking pneumonia, a rib broken from the stress of prolonged coughing and pleurisy. In addition, cigarette smoke triggered severe migraine and cluster headache episodes which often lasted several months. During that time, I was in debilitating pain, unable to lead a normal life or to function at my job.
Each time I had attempted to have the company s stated no-smoking policy enforced, I was ignored or harassed. I was told by senior managers that they were not responsible for the behavior of grown men. On other occasions, I was told of their contempt for the laws banning smoking, and their unwillingness to consider smoking outside the building. The RTC official second in command at SFSB actually complained about what a pain it was for him to have to wait until he was outside to smoke. In disbelief, I asked if he had ever experienced the excruciating anguish of cluster-migraine headaches, the unnerving sensation of asthma, or the wrenching pain of a broken rib. Comparatively, I did not think the inconvenience of walking a small distance to smoke could measure up to the anguish I was forced to endure because of his inconsiderate behavior. Since then, I have come to realize that I was trapped in what I call the Smoker s Paradox. This phenomenon incorporates a demand, generously laced with belligerence, that smokers habits be accommodated, with a refusal, equally laced with indifference, to acknowledge the impact of smoking on the health of others.
In September, 1993, as retaliation for my constant complaints about the smoking in the workplace, I was terminated from my job at SFSB. At the time, I was working as the Director of Financial Analysis earning $65,000 a year and, within the last two months, I had received an outstanding performance evaluation and a recommendation for the maximum salary increase. But, I was ill after being exposed to smoke in the office and had been absent for 9 days. In addition, I had provided the company with statements from two physicians treating me for these on-going health problems. Ostensibly, I was fired for refusing to come to work, although I had requested sick leave and had accrued over 45 days of combined sick leave and vacation time. I did not lose my job because I was a bad employee or because my job became obsolete. Quite the contrary, I was a highly valued and highly compensated worker whose salary more than tripled in my five years of employment at SFSB. And, since losing my job, I have been unable to resume my career in finance or to secure a comparable position to the one I lost. Ironically, I now find myself among the legions of the uninsurable due to a pre-existing condition, while the smokers who fired me still have health insurance. I can neither obtain nor afford health insurance and must gamble, every day, that I will not suffer some severe medical trauma.
You may wonder what a person does to recover from a situation such as this. About the only option available is to file a lawsuit for illegal termination and retaliation, actions which are prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Unfortunately, justice is not swift, and I have been waiting for my case to come to trial for more than four years. During the course of discovery, I learned that several officials from the RTC had spread false allegations about me in an effort to cover their own misdeeds. Attorneys for the RTC have not only accused me of everything from fraud to extortion, but have asserted, in court documents, that I admitted doing these things when I have never wavered from the strongest possible denial. In short, they have knowingly lied to the judge in an effort to discredit me and to force me into a paltry settlement.
The defamation of my character and attacks on my integrity have had a profound impact on my life. Not only has my reputation suffered seemingly irreparable damage, but I have felt the need to re-evaluate the validity of my beliefs and values. While I still cling to the hope that this situation will be resolved soon, I routinely find it difficult to comprehend the amount of punishment I have been forced to tolerate for simply being sensitive to cigarette smoke. Without a doubt, the physical pain, torment, and isolation of being ill has been the hardest thing to bear. These days, when I start to despair over how much I have lost of my former life, I quickly remind myself that I am now, for the most part, free of the pain I once had to endure for months at a time. And, somehow, the staggering debts become less intimidating, the lost possessions relinquish their importance, and the prospect of completely re-building my life doesn t seem quite so overwhelming.
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