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A Painful Mistake




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For Julia Burns, the arbitration hearing was about whether she would lose her house. She had already lost her teaching career to an excruciating, inflammatory joint ailment that worsened over a period of three terrible years.

“I don’t teach from my desk or an overhead. I’m always running around,” she says, using a verb tense we might call the “hopeful present.” Burns hasn’t done any running around for years, but she still hopes to go back to the work she loves.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t count out papers with my fingers. I couldn’t carry books—I would pick them out in the library and a paraprofessional had to carry them to my room. My knees, my feet, my fingers, my shoulders—they were all in pain.”
Finally Burns (not her real name) realized she had to stop. Filling out the forms for long-term disability was tough, both because she wanted to keep working and because her fingers hurt so much.

But at least, she knew her contract guaranteed that the district would pay her medical insurance premiums—or did she?

Seven years after leaving on disability, Burns got a letter informing her that those payments would stop because they had been a mistake all along—the contract language called for no such thing.

By then, Burns, a single mother with a high-school age son, had sold her old house and had a new, handicapped-accessible house built for her. Otherwise, she would have been a prisoner in her own home. “My son did the laundry and cooked the meals. We ate a lot of scrambled eggs. He decided not to go to college so he could stay home and take care of Mom. You can imagine what a bad thing that is for a teacher-mother to hear!” She absolutely refused and he went off to college, but worked long hours at the same time to help pay the bills.

“I could hardly lift my pills up to my face. My son would leave them on a plate near my chair and when it was time to take them, I would lick them off the plate.”

Ironically, Habitat for Humanity would have built her house, but with the district paying her insurance premiums, she was just above their income limit. Now she found out she and her son would have to shoulder both the house payments and the insurance premiums.

What had happened was that a new person heading up the district’s benefits office had looked at the contract, and sure enough, although the wording was grammatically awkward, it did seem to say people on long-term disability had to pay their own premiums.

But Burns couldn’t believe it—she couldn’t afford to. The extra $450 per month was simply not there for her, and those premiums were bound to go even higher. So she started trying to track down the bargaining records.

Her union local had just moved so their records were all in boxes but the union president started digging though them, although she didn’t hold out much hope.

Meanwhile, Burns, with her painful fingers, sorted through box after box of old school materials and notices stashed in her garage, praying for some shred of evidence.

She found one piece of paper.

A notice from the union president explaining a relatively minor change in health insurance in the contract that left the crucial provision intact.

The union president dug harder through her own records and finally found the rough draft that had been agreed to. Burns filed a grievance—whatever the published contract seemed to say, that’s not what the parties had bargained. The awkwardness in the phrase as published was due to a mistake in transcribing the agreement. At least, that was the union’s position. On the day of the hearing, says Burns, “I was a wreck, I was falling apart. I was going to keep my house or lose it depending on what happened that day.”

The retired district benefits administrator had not been willing to talk with Burns before the hearing and she had moved away. But at the hearing, she testified by phone—in support of the union side.

Still, the district argued that the published language was correct and should determine benefits.Several weeks later, the union lawyer called Burns: the arbitrator had come down on her side. “I fell apart, I was crying,” says Burns, and she still cries every time she talks about it. Her life was changed again. The district reimbursed her for the premiums she had scraped together in the months before the decision.

Burns still has to pinch pennies—a long distance phone carrier is a luxury she can’t afford, because each year her pension, not adjusted for inflation, is worth a little less. But she makes her house payments.

With new drug treatments, Burns is a little better physically, too. “Some days, I can hold a newspaper and read it, but other days I can’t push my fingers together hard enough.” She still hopes some day to teach again, which is why she didn’t want to make any unnecessary waves and have her real name in this article.

Her son still helps her pay the bills, but he’s been able to finish school—he just became a registered nurse.

Read next story: A Counselor's Tale

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October, 2007