By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Katie Tremul stood before Manassas City Council members recently and said she wanted to tell them a story: "a story of honor, dedication, loyalty, as well as fear, pain and abandonment."
It was her story, a cautionary tale, she said, one that illustrates the intricate web of employment law and how government employees in Fairfax County might find themselves with different rights than those in Loudoun County.
Tremul, 50, learned that lesson while working for the City of Manassas in May 2006, when a doctor told her she had breast cancer. She had worked as an emergency communications specialist, directing calls for the fire and police departments for 12 years. But July 26 this year, after going on long-term disability while she underwent seven surgeries and chemotherapy, Tremul received a letter in the mail terminating her employment. With her job went her health and life insurance benefits, she said.
"You don't cut someone off at the knees when they're sick. And that's what they did," Tremul said. "I was fired for having cancer."
When Tremul stood before the council late last month, she did it without a lawsuit hanging overhead. She said that she knows the city had the legal authority to fire her, and a firefighter in a similar situation, but that it didn't mean officials were fair or right in doing so. She said she hopes that by hearing her story, officials will not only end the practice of firing long-term employees who contract life-threatening illnesses but also cease doing it through the mail without warning.
"Bottom line: We have been terminated because we are sick," Tremul told the council. "It just seems wrong, doesn't it?"
Manassas Mayor Douglas S. Waldron and City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes did not return calls seeking comment.
Manassas Police Chief John J. Skinner, whose office oversees Tremul and Carl Persing, a longtime Manassas firefighter, said both employees are missed.
"Both were very dedicated, highly trained, long-term, highly valued employees and highly regarded," Skinner said.
Lawyers who specialize in employment law said that although public servants tend to have more rights than those in the private sector, the degree of their rights depends on the municipality. Virginia law lays out a basic template for personnel policies, and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act offers umbrella protections, but a degree of discretion is left to each jurisdiction, they said.
"The thing with employment law is it's very fact-specific. You can't say one situation applies to another," said Camilla C. McKinney, a Fairfax-based lawyer who handles employment law throughout the region. "There's a difference between something that seems unfair and unjust and whether it's a legal cause of action."
Lawyer John C. Cook in Fairfax heard Tremul's case when she called him this summer. He could not speak about the specifics of their conversation but said her case falls into a complex legal area where federal, state and local laws often meet.
"When you talk about medical issues and public employees, it's about as complicated as it gets in employment law," he said, adding that he has many clients who are surprised that they have less legal recourse than they thought. "Employment law isn't always what people consider fair."
Persing had worked as a Manassas firefighter for 20 years when his letter arrived.
In February 2006, the lieutenant and assistant fire marshal's colorectal cancer was diagnosed. This June , he said, he received a certified letter saying he was terminated because he could no longer perform his job. He said he read the letter a couple of times in disbelief.
"That word terminated. I've never been terminated from anything in my life," Persing said. "If I worked at 7-Eleven or wherever, if you were being terminated, someone would take you in the office and tell you or at least tell you on the phone."
Persing, who is 50 and has two children, ages 5 and 4, lost 90 pounds after undergoing three surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. He said he knew he was not fit to return to firefighting. "You want a firefighter to pull up, and he or she has to be strong enough to do the job. I'm not trying to say I could have," he said.
Persing said he had asked to be allowed to work in some capacity and was talking to the fire marshal's office about finding a good fit when he got his termination letter. He has since retired in the line of duty.
Tremul, who was a supervisor in the communications division, said she had been talking to the department about doing employee background checks while she recovered. She is looking at retirement options.
Standing in front of town hall recently, Tremul and Persing remembered how they talked often while handling the tornados that hit the city a few years ago. Before that, there was the power outage of 1995 and the snowstorm of 1996.
"It's so sad that we are categorized as totally disposable," Tremul said. "We are public servants. It was not but six years ago, in 2001, that every firefighter in the world was a hero."
Tremul said that she realizes nothing may come of her speech to the council but that it helped just being able to tell her story.
Staff writer Christy Goodman contributed to this report.