Imagine being pregnant and excitedly looking forward to the birth of your child.
Everything is going along smoothly until the day you find out you have been exposed to an illness that can cause you to miscarry or that may harm your baby.
In fact, you have probably been exposed numerous times because you are a teacher at a school where fifth disease is spreading around the student population.
(Fifth disease is a fairly common childhood illness sometimes called slapped cheek disease because of the red rash it causes on the face. The rash can spread to other parts of the body. Other symptoms include fever, runny nose, headache and swollen joints. Adults can also get the disease. It is spread through respiratory secretions.)
Your doctor tells you to stay home from work and of course you want to do everything you can to keep your unborn child safe.
Your employer and WorkSafeBC tell you that the only financial coverage available to you is to use up your sick days. But, there aren’t enough sick days — so you take the time off without pay while the illness works its way through the school.
On top of worrying about the health of your child, you now are also worrying about the financial ramifications.
This is exactly what happened to two West Kootenay teachers earlier this year.
They are coming forward to share their stories in the hopes that no other women have to endure the anxiety and hard choices they have had to make.
Katie Power and Sasha Giraud recently spoke to a panel as part of a Workers’ Compensation system review. The review is looking at modernizing WorkSafeBC’s culture to reflect a worker-centric service delivery model, the case management of injured workers and the current policies and practices through a gender and diversity-based lens.
Power and Giraud and the union that supports them are hoping that gender-based lens will include protections for pregnant women.
“We are here today on behalf of all workers in B.C. and women in precarious environments who have to choose between attending work and possibly having a miscarriage or not working and loosing their housing,” said Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union health and safety chair Fred Nock at the hearing. “We find this to be a gender equity issue.”
Even though Giraud and Power went through the process of applying for WorkSafe compensation and were led through the motions of the process, they really had no hope of coverage from the beginning.
The Workers’ Compensation Board does not see an unborn baby as a person and legislative protections only go as far as to the workers themselves. For this same reason, refusing unsafe work is not an option either.
“I was told by our BC Teachers’ Federation WCB liaison that I had no ability to appeal the denial of coverage because the policy was clear that I could not miss work simply due to risks to my unborn child,” said Giraud in her written statement to the review panel.
When Giraud heard that fifth disease (erythema infectiosum) was running through Fruitvale Elementary School, where she is a primary teacher, she went to her family doctor right away. Her blood was tested for immunity and unfortunately the tests concluded that she was not immune. Her doctor recommended staying away from work for a month after the last child showed symptoms of the disease.
Fifth disease has an incubation period of four to 14 days, but can extend to as long as 21 days. During the incubation time the disease can be passed on, even though the carrier is not showing any symptoms.
Giraud, a Castlegar resident, was eventually able to return to work and tried to put the whole incident behind her. But fear of the disease returning, fear of more financial hardship due to the lack of WorkSafeBC coverage and knowing she was running out of sick days caused her anxiety levels to continue to rise.
“Whenever a child was sick or not feeling well, I would become anxious and stressed because I knew I was running out of sick days,” she said. “I also knew that if a student showed signs of fifth disease that they would have possibly infected me while the incubation period was taking place.”
As it turned out, the disease did come back to the school. Three new cases were confirmed.
“It was very emotional for me,” said Giraud.
The new diagnoses and pending financial instability turned out to be all that Giraud’s emotions could handle. She was diagnosed with anxiety and at the time of her presentation to the panel had not been able to return to work.
“Had I been able to receive coverage from WCB while away from my workplace, during the outbreaks of fifth disease, I feel that I would have been better able to manage my anxiety,” said Giraud.
“I wanted to be with my class of students and was devastated when I found out that fifth disease had come back to our school, but I was, and still am, incapable of putting my unborn child at risk,” she added.
Several weeks have passed since Giraud’s appearance before the panel. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Aug. 4.
Katie Power was 13 weeks pregnant when fifth disease surfaced at Kinnaird Elementary School where she was working on contract as an intermediate teacher. Blood tests confirmed she was not immune to the disease.
The news was particularly devastating to Power as she had recently gone through a very complicated miscarriage a few months before.
It turns out that there is no compensation plan in place for miscarriages or pending miscarriages either.
Eleven weeks into her first pregnancy, Power was told she had lost the baby. However, the actual physical completion of that loss would take nine weeks to conclude. The mental recovery would take far longer.
“Devastated does not begin to describe how we felt,” said Power. “Over that next week, I experienced an overwhelming amount of emotional and physical pain. I was unable to focus on anything … Not only was the physical pain tremendous, the mental anguish prevented me from getting through even a few hours without breaking down.”
Power used up most of her sick days, but the ordeal was not over and she returned to work anyway.
One day while at work her symptoms became more severe.
“My cramping and bleeding became so intense that I had to call our student support teacher in to cover my class. I went to the bathroom and completed the miscarriage while at work,” Power told the review panel. “Let me tell you, this is the last place you would ever want that to happen.”
Once Power physically recovered from the miscarriage, she was able to get pregnant again fairly quickly and is expecting to give birth in September.
She was already experiencing some anxiety due to her previous pregnancy loss when word came that fifth disease was present in the school district.
“You can imagine the anxiety I felt when I was told there was a disease circulating in the school district that, if I were to contract it, could cause me to lose another baby,” said Power. “The overwhelming thought of going through both the physical and emotional pain again was too much for me to handle.”
At this point Power had used up 10 of her 15 sick days for the first miscarriage and one more due to illness.
Power spent the next month off work, mostly without pay.
“Making a mother choose between her work and her child will always result in the mother choosing the child, and I believe that should have been accounted for in this case,” said Power.
Power’s claim denial from WorkSafeBC stated that “wage loss benefits are normally paid where an accepted work related personal injury or occupational disease temporarily impairs or limits a worker’s functioning and ability to do work.”
Power contends that exposure to fifth disease meets that criteria — that it is an occupational disease due to the fact that exposure is significantly higher in environments where large numbers of children are present.
“Furthermore, not only did the thought of another miscarriage limit my ability to work due to the anxiety it caused, but I would challenge any member of the board who passed this decision to experience a miscarriage and tell me that they did not find it to ‘impair or limit their functioning and ability to do work,’” said Power.
Teachers’ union takes up the cause
KCTU president Andy Davidoff spoke to the hearing panel and shared a bit of his frustrations with the organization’s policies and the way the teachers were led along with their claims.
“The claims manager was frankly very supportive,” said Davidoff. “But, that was misleading … they knew the claims would be denied. It is automatic. [Fifth disease] is not recognized.”
He noted that WorkSafeBC regulations are supposed to be there to protect all people.
“But the fetus is not considered a person,” said Davidoff, noting that topic may be something for the Supreme Court of Canada to sort out.
Nock explained further: “Both workers’ claims were denied and when we investigated their likelihood of success of appealing WorkSafeBC’s decisions, we were informed by WorkSafe and other expert advisors that there was no likelihood of success … that WorkSafeBC did not recognize the potential risk to an unborn child.”
The situation revealed to the teachers’ union that their own policies for fifth disease coverage from their salary indemnity plan were lacking.
“We have already drafted a policy change based on what we have just gone through,” said Davidoff. “We are going to review that within our federation.”
KCTU has filed a submission supporting Giraud and Power in hopes that through the current review process policy changes will happen.
“This is a huge issue that affects women,” said Nock. “We are looking at an industrial system that was designed for men and in a lot of cases some of these decisions don’t contemplate the issues women face and the issues pregnant women face. The result is some very calloused, thoughtless decisions.”
The union has included a number of arguments to back their request.
They believe the potential of a miscarriage due to exposure to fifth disease and the anxiety that it creates in pregnant workers should be considered compensable as an occupational disease or that employers should be required to provide alternative employment to pregnant workers exposed to the disease.
They also argue that, in addition to the risk of a miscarriage being obviously life threatening to the fetus, miscarriage complications also have the potential to be life threatening to the worker. As some miscarriages end with a procedure requiring general anaesthesia, they conclude that is another complication which carries its own set of life-threatening risks.
The union also takes issue with a WorkSafe policy that states there should be no compensation if a worker withdraws from work because of concerns that exposure to the conditions at work may cause an injury or disease which does not yet exist.
The union counters that just as compensation shouldn’t be withheld from an employee refusing to work in an asbestos-filled environment without abatement because they don’t have lung cancer yet, pregnant workers should not be required to work in an environment that exposes them to a potential miscarriage and the health risks associated with it.
WorkSafeBC conducted a small internal review in 2002, but WorkSafe regulations have not undergone a major review since the 1980s. This current review is being led by retired labour lawyer Janet Patterson.
For the sake of pregnant women who work with children across the province, Power, Giraud and the teachers’ union hope that when Patterson’s report comes out in September, coverage for pregnancy-related risks is included in her recommendations.