There were days when Stacy Steward had 25 seizures.
And months when she had just two.
There were days when Stacy’s blood platelet count dropped so low, she was sealed in an isolation ward, and her mom had to suit up and wear gloves and a mask to visit her.
And there were months when Stacy happily went to the mall and to the movies.
Coping with such unpredictability is motherhood when your 27-year-old daughter — diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 5 — still needs help.
And this is the kind of caregiving that the Family and Medical Leave Act was designed to protect.
Except in Beverly Steward’s case, she believes it didn’t.
Beverly Steward, Stacy’s mom, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court this week alleging she was harassed, badgered and eventually fired from her supervisor job at Walmart in Northwest Washington because she took the federally protected days off to take care of her sick adult child. She wants her job back and $250,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
Walmart denies Steward was targeted for using family leave.
“Our policy is to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Ms. Steward was terminated from the company for legitimate business reasons,” said Ragan Dickens, director of national media relations for Walmart. “We deny all of the allegations and will defend ourselves in court.”
For Steward, the struggle began in 1995. She had just given birth to a second daughter when she learned that the first had brain cancer. The doctor said Stacy, then 5, probably had only five years to live.
The following year, Stacy went to the Oval Office to watch President Bill Clinton sign the Cancer Control Month Proclamation in 1996. She met Socks, the Clintons’ cat. And she went on to beat the brain cancer, graduating from high school on time.
But as a result of her cancer treatments, Stacy suffered cognitive delays, seizures, thyroid disease and osteoporosis. She also has a blood disorder that has left her with a compromised immune system and repeated hospitalizations. She wears hearing aides, but she is almost deaf. She functions like a 13-year-old.
Eventually, juggling all that care devastated the working-class family, and they landed in a city homeless shelter.
The job at Walmart saved them.
“Walmart gave me a very good opportunity to put my life back on track,” Steward said. “I remember moving into my apartment at last and crying. Stacy was in a safe place. That job was everything for us.”
Steward loved working at Walmart. She was one of the first employees to be hired at the Georgia Avenue location in 2013. She knew the customers, and they knew her. She got consistently good reviews of her performance as one of the night-shift supervisors, she said. And a raise.
And for years, the system for granting her leave worked perfectly. And it definitely served the country. A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that family caregivers help save about $35 billion in special-needs care costs to public and private health-care providers every year.
But this kind of family leave can be complicated for employers, said Sara Faulman, a labor lawyer who is representing Steward.
The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act — which doesn’t grant anyone paid leave, but rather protects their employment status when they take unpaid leave for a number of approved reasons — is easy to understand when it’s applied to a maternity leave.
“You have the baby, take 12 weeks off, it’s a chunk of time,” Faulman said.
But intermittent leave is a little harder to understand, especially in a case like Stacy’s, where the long-lasting effects from her childhood cancer treatments can send her into a medical crisis one week, but subside and leave her without major problems for two weeks.
Each time Steward took the intermittent leave, Walmart’s managers approved it, and they were kind and thoughtful afterward, she said.
“They always asked me, ‘How is your daughter doing now?’ ” Steward said.
But it all changed last year, the lawsuit asserts, when she was promoted to a daytime job. Her new supervisor wasn’t supportive, she says.
Although the human resources department cleared her to take intermittent leave throughout October 2016, the lawsuit alleges that her new supervisor harassed her every time she took an unpaid day, which was an average of once a month.
He told her he was “tired” of having to document her absences as family leave in Walmart’s timekeeping system, according to the lawsuit. It contends he warned her that he’d find a way to fire the folks who bothered him with this kind of leave.
After she filed a written complaint about him in May, she got her first bad performance review, the lawsuit charges. In July, after she took two days of leave to get Stacy to doctors, she was fired.
The official reason? According to the lawsuit, it was because Steward charged the cash register 5 cents to open the drawer for the start of the shift, something she contends all the cashiers do.
Steward said she is heartsick. She really liked it there.
But she’s moved on. She has a new job working as a counselor and manager at a halfway house. She is sharing Stacy’s caregiving duties with her younger daughter, who is now 21 and a student at Trinity University.
They call themselves the Three Musketeers, and they’re happiest when they’re all home, together, watching a movie and laughing.
“It’s critical that I keep working, that I keep fighting for us and to keep our home,” Steward said.
Back in 1996, meeting Socks the cat and putting on a brave face in her pretty blue dress and with her bald head, Stacy was a poster child for the urgent need for children’s cancer care. Twenty years later, the whole family was a poster-perfect example of how corporations can work with federal regulations so everyone wins.
And today? They’re a perfect example of what can happen when the system’s protections don’t work.
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