Sharon Feezer says she and her 16-year-old daughter Karen bundle up in blankets and stretch out as best they can at night in the back of their Nissan Sentra hatchback. Usually, they park in an unobtrusive corner spot in the lot of an Ellicott City, Md., apartment complex. They wake at daybreak, before most of the apartment dwellers, and duck inside to wash up at a sink in the laundry room.
On days when they have a few dollars, Feezer said, they eat at McDonald's. Most of the time they don't have that much money and have to settle for a few 45-cent doughnuts from a vending machine. The Feezers spend much of the day in their car, Sharon Feezer studying for night courses she is taking at Catonsville Community College and Karen, who hopes to become an artist, drawing. Karen, who has a high school graduate equivalency diploma, accompanies her mother to most of the evening classes.
Not so long ago, Sharon Feezer, 43, would never have imagined she would be reduced to such desperate circumstances. In 1981, she and her two children were living in a comfortable Randallstown apartment filled with antiques and collectables. She was earning $7.69 an hour working in electronics assembly for the Westinghouse Corp.
"It's been a nightmare, a five-year nightmare," said Feezer, when describing the turn of events that brought unemployment, a bout with cancer, medical bills and a rejection of her application for food stamps. Feezer and her daughter long ago sold off most of their possessions. On Feb. 1 they gave up an apartment they could no longer afford and moved into their car.
"I'm a strong person, but I'm at the breaking point," Feezer said, explaining that most recently she has been living on small sums left over from tuition grants. "There are days when we have nothing to eat. I have even gone to church and taken money out of the candle box to buy food."
Feezer, who contacted The Washington Post about her plight, met with a reporter in the library of the Catonsville Community College, where she and her daughter spend most of their evenings.
Feezer said she has been engaged in a daily struggle for survival since 1981, when she was fired by the Westinghouse Corp. after a dispute over medical leave and then developed cancer. Since then, she has been fighting to get her job back and trying to prod action from a state agency investigating her case.
Although Westinghouse officials refused to comment on the case, documents filed by the company with the state agency deny that Feezer was discriminated against.
The state Human Relations Commission decided in early 1982 that Feezer had grounds for a complaint against Westinghouse for the firing and agreed to investigate, according to commission documents. Under the agency's procedures, if after a confidential investigation it finds that the complaint has merit, the case goes before a special hearing officer who rules on it. The hearing officer has the power to force Westinghouse to rehire Feezer and reimburse her for up to two years of lost wages.
But the agency has yet to complete an investigation of Feezer's complaint. Meanwhile, Feezer has brought a second complaint alleging Westinghouse discriminated against her in refusing to rehire her in 1982, and the commission has found in her favor and recommended that the complaint go to a hearing officer, according to commission records. But a commission official, citing a backlog of cases at the agency, said Feezer's case is not likely to be reviewed by the agency's hearing officer for at least another year.
Adding to her fears, Feezer said commission officials have told her that Westinghouse is seeking a dismissal of her original complaint on the grounds that commission regulations state investigations are to be completed within a two-year period.
A spokesman for Westinghouse would not comment on what actions the company has taken on Feezer's complaint, and commission officials said they could not comment on that complaint because it is still being investigated.
"How do you put a cancer patient on hold for five years -- and holding?" said Feezer, who said she is deeply depressed and angry over the agency's inaction.
Elinor H. Kerpelman, deputy director of the Human Relations Commission, said in a recent interview that officials there are aware of Feezer's plight, including her fears that the cancer she had treated in 1981 has recurred. Kerpelman said her agency has tried to expedite Feezer's case "to the extent that we can," and she has asked Feezer to provide a deposition now for eventual use in a case hearing. "This case will not die with her," said Kerpelman.
"I have a great deal of sympathy for Mrs. Feezer," she said. "We have tried to work with her and we're doing the best we can."
Glendora Hughes, a commission attorney who also participated in an interview in the agency's Baltimore office, said there were many aspects of Feezer's case that she could not discuss because of rules of confidentiality protecting both Westinghouse and Feezer. But, said Hughes, "Litigation takes time. We can't act as a factory and just zip things through in terms of speed."
Kerpelman blamed understaffing at the agency for delays in Feezer's case. "We have an enormous caseload, and her case is enormously complex," she said.
Hughes added, "We have to keep in mind that there are other Mrs. Feezers who have maybe waited longer. There are people who are just as bad off, just as desperate as she is."
The commission, which is charged with investigating complaints of discrimination in housing and employment, currently has a staff of 78 and a yearly budget of $2.58 million. Kerpelman said officials are hoping a budget increase this year will allow them catch up on backlogged cases, which she said now number about 2,000.
Feezer said her problems at Westinghouse began in 1980, when she complained to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission about sexual harassment on the job. EEOC intervened, and Westinghouse and Feezer quickly agreed to a settlement, according to EEOC documents.
Shortly afterward, Feezer took a six-month medical leave after suffering a back injury and undergoing intestinal surgery, commission records show. She returned to work at the company's urging and asked to take several vacation days to complete her recuperation, but the company denied her request, according to the commission's findings. Feezer says a supervisor fired her on her first day back at work and she received formal notification five days later in the mail. Westinghouse contends that she left work without authorization and was fired after failing to appear for five days, according to Human Relations Commission documents.
A few months later, Feezer underwent surgery for intestinal cancer.
Feezer has charged that Westinghouse fired her in retaliation for her earlier complaint of sexual harassment, and that the company has twice refused to rehire her for that reason and because she has had cancer.
In documents filed with the commission, Westinghouse denied that Feezer's firing was retaliatory or that she had been discriminated against in not being rehired.
Westinghouse attorney Barnett Brooks refused to comment on Feezer's case, citing company policy against discussing pending litigation. He said, however, that he was "not aware of any of the factual circumstances surrounding Feezer's personal life."
Feezer said she has been unable to find steady work since leaving Westinghouse. She, her daughter and her son -- who joined the Army a year ago -- have survived over the years largely on unemployment benefits, public assistance, short-time jobs and sewing work that Feezer took in.
Feezer grew up in rural areas of Howard and Carroll counties, one of 10 children. She is estranged from her family, she said, and cannot go to them for help.
She is currently ineligible for food stamps and has had trouble trying to get public assistance because she owns a car, which she bought last year while working at a temporary factory job. Howard County social service officials, who belatedly learned she had a car, recently ordered Feezer to reimburse them for $107 worth of emergency food stamps they provided her in January.
"If I don't qualify, I don't know who does," said Feezer. "I haven't had any income since mid-November, when my $175 a week unemployment ran out."
Feezer, who said she is several payments behind on the car, refuses to give it up and refuses to go to a shelter for the homeless. "Until my car is taken from me it's mine and I have that little bit of peace and privacy," she said.