It’s a new parent’s worst nightmare.
Four weeks after Rachel Walsh gave birth to her son, she learned the boy had bilateral retinoblastoma, a cancer that affected the retinas in both the little guy’s eyes.
Thankfully, Walsh was on 12-week maternity from her job at Barclays Bank in New York City, where she held a plum post as assistant vice president of global finance. So when the boy started chemotherapy at seven weeks, Walsh was able to sit by his side.
It also meant she had health insurance to help defray the costs of his treatment.
But pediatric cancer is ruthless and when Walsh’s maternity leave ended, she couldn’t leave the boy to go back to work. She requested additional unpaid leave and says her employers agreed to it, sympathizing with her situation and telling her they would accommodate a more flexible schedule when she returned.
"I had a sense of security during my leave. I was so thankful. They seemed so understanding. They told me I could work from home. I had insurance for my son," Walsh tells ABC News.
By spring 2012, the boy’s chemotherapy ended and Walsh felt ready to resume her professional duties. That’s when she learned there would be no more professional duties, at least with Barclays.
It should be noted, however, that Barclays claims she turned down a full-time position at the bank after her leave.
Walsh claims that her bosses expressed her concern that as a mother with a sick child, she would not be able to handle the demanding workload required of her former position.
"She was assuming that because I was the mother, I would be the one who would have to sacrifice; that I would not be able to come to work. But if I had been a man, I don't think my boss would have assumed that. Actually, my fiancée had taken a flexible job, so that he could be there for the baby," she says.
And with no job comes no health insurance or steady income. Walsh knew she needed to work and so despite what she felt was “sexist” behaviour from the bank, she begged her bosses to give her a job – any job – within the company.
But no dice. Walsh says the bank eventually responded that there were no positions for her, full-time, part-time or otherwise, and that the woman who had received a promotion and glowing performance reviews the same year she became pregnant was no longer a “fit” for the group.
"They said they had nothing available, and that I would be losing all my benefits. I was not expecting that," she says.
Walsh retained an attorney and has filed a $10 million complaint against Barclays alleging breach of contract and gender discrimination.
For their part, Barclays has denied any wrongdoing
"Barclays is committed to working with its employees to accommodate health and family needs that may arise, including accommodating leaves of absence for pregnancies and child care. Ms. Walsh requested, and Barclays approved, several requests for extended leave--beyond the time periods that would be required by law. During her extended leave, Barclays provided Ms. Walsh and her family continued health coverage benefits. Thereafter, Ms. Walsh declined to return to a full-time position that the firm had available for her," the bank said in a statement to ABC.
Except Walsh’s attorney says his client recorded the conversation during which the bank told her there were no positions for her. "They offered her nothing, and told her nothing was available. I have concrete evidence of that," he tells the news network.
Since leaving the company, Walsh has been burning through her savings to pay living expenses and the $1,800/mo. private health insurance required for her child’s continued care.
She says she applied for unemployment insurance, but Barclays contested her eligibility, though she eventually received the help. Her fiancé and family have also been helping carry out the massive financial burden.
Now that her 20-month-old son is showing signs of improvement, she’s anxious to get back to the career she worked so hard to build and hopes she can continue.
But the boy will require bimonthly treatments for some time to come, placing Walsh, like any parent of a child with serious illness, in an incredibly difficult position.
Naturally, this complicated issue has generated sharp divisions between those who feel the bank was well within its right to terminate an employee who they felt could no longer fulfill her role and others who believe her employers acted in an heartless, sexist and duplicitous manner.
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