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 could 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 it.
Your doctor tells you to stay home from work and 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 is your sick days. But you don’t have enough, so you take the time off unpaid 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 sharing their stories in the hopes that no other women have to endure the anxiety and choices they have had to make.
Katie Power and Sasha Giraud recently spoke to a panel as part of a review of among other things, WorkSafeBC’s culture to reflect a worker-centric model and policies through a gender- and diversity-based lens.
“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 losing their housing,” said Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union health and safety chair Fred Nock at the panel.
Giraud and Power applied for WorkSafe compensation, but had no real hope of coverage.
The Workers’ Compensation Board does not see an unborn baby as a person, and legislative protections only extend as far as 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 a written statement to the review panel.
When Giraud heard that fifth disease was running through Fruitvale Elementary, where she is a primary teacher, she went to her family doctor right away.
Her blood tests showed she was not immune, and her doctor recommended staying away from work for a month after the last child at the school 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.
Giraud, from Castlegar, was eventually able to return to work. But fear of the disease returning and of more financial hardship because of the lack of WorkSafeBC coverage kept her anxiety high.
“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.
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 her 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,” she said.
“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.”
Several weeks have passed since the panel. Giraud gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Aug. 4.
Katie Power was 13 weeks pregnant when fifth disease surfaced at Kinnaird Elementary in Castlegar where she was teaching on contract. Blood tests confirmed she was not immune to the illness.
The news was particularly devastating to Power as she had gone through a complicated miscarriage a few months before.
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 grew worse.
“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.
So, she was already experiencing anxiety fifth disease was reported in the school district.
“The overwhelming thought of going through both the physical and emotional pain again was too much for me to handle,” she said.
At this point, Power had used up 10 of her 15 sick days for the first miscarriage, and one more for an illness.
She 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,” she said.
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.”
She contends that exposure to fifth disease meets that criteria — that it is an occupational disease because of exposure is significantly higher in environments where large numbers of children are present.
“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.’”
Teachers’ union takes up the cause
KCTU president Andy Davidoff shared some of his own frustrations with WorkSafeBC’s policies and the way the teachers were led along with their claims.
“The claims manager was frankly very supportive,” Davidoff told the panel. “But, that was misleading … they knew the claims would be denied. It is automatic. [Fifth disease] is not recognized.”
WorkSafeBC regulations are supposed to protect all people, he added, but “the fetus is not considered a person.”
Health and safety chair Fred 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 even revealed to the union that their own policies for fifth disease coverage from their salary indemnity plan were lacking.
“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.”
When asked for comment, WorkSafeBC told Black Press Media that the Workers Compensation Act gives them authority to provide compensation and support for workers who have a work-related injury or suffer from an occupational disease that was caused by the nature of their employment.
“While we sympathize with the situation of the teachers … compensation is not provided for workers who do not have an injury or disease, but withdraw from work for preventative reasons,” said spokesperson Ralph Eastman in an email.
The agency conducted a small internal review in 2002, but its regulations have not undergone a major review since the 1980s.
For the sake of pregnant women who work with children across the province, Power, Giraud and the teachers’ union hope that when the report comes out in September, coverage for pregnancy-related risks is included in the recommendations.