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Cancer-stricken teacher in Pasco County denied access to extra sick days

Connie Duffy has taught at Bayonet Point Middle School for 26 years. She is fighting cancer, but was denied more sick days from the district’s leave bank.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Connie Duffy has taught at Bayonet Point Middle School for 26 years. She is fighting cancer, but was denied more sick days from the district’s leave bank.

BAYONET POINT — Her battle with cancer left her exhausted, so on Friday Connie Duffy collapsed on the couch, pulled up a blanket and closed her eyes.

Not for too long though. This was the faculty lounge, after all, and the morning planning period lasts less than an hour.

Duffy, who has taught for 26 years at Bayonet Point Middle School, is fighting inoperable, late-stage endometrial cancer. The cancer has spread to her sciatic nerve, making it painful at times to stand or even sit.

But as much as she needs to rest before her next round of chemotherapy this month, she can't afford to stay home any more this year.

Duffy has used up all of her sick days for the school year. Living alone, she can't risk losing any income.

So she leaned on Pasco teachers' "sick leave bank," a pool of days that employees contribute for their colleagues to use. She hoped to get enough days from the bank to get her through the rest of the school year.

But this week, she learned that the committee of district-wide staff members who oversee the bank had denied her request.

That denial has outraged Duffy's colleagues at Bayonet Point, where the close-knit group of staff members have endured the deaths of three teachers from cancer.

They have watched Duffy lose her hair and shrink to a bony 107 pounds, helped her struggle through the short walk from the classroom to the lounge, brought her dinner when they knew she didn't have the energy to cook for herself.

"I don't understand," said eighth-grade science teacher Ellen Maracotta. "How much sicker do you have to get?"

• • •

School employees who contribute to the sick leave bank — as Duffy has for nearly her entire career — must meet certain conditions to get days back. Depending on the severity of the illness or injury, employees can qualify for as many as 100 days within a school year.

Duffy, who was diagnosed with her cancer in April 2007, got 25 days from the bank earlier this school year, which she used while she was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

But the committee denied her latest application for more days. Terry Rhum, director of employee relations, said the committee decided that this time her application did not meet the necessary medical requirements for additional time.

He said Duffy's application contained no specific course of medical action, such as chemotherapy, but had a more general statement from her doctor that she would need to come back for future evaluations.

Rhum said other staff members have faced similar predicaments, and some had to go on unpaid leave. (The school district offers long-term disability through a supplemental insurance plan.)

"The bank is not designed to be long-term disability," he said.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino called Duffy's case a "sad situation" but emphasized that the committee was made up of other staff members who pay into the bank.

"It's not my place to intercede with this," she said.

• • •

Duffy said she wanted to be careful not to say anything bad about the committee members — "I know they're doing their job," she said — but she wondered why no one picked up the phone and called her if they needed more information about her treatment.

"I just wish they'd gone the extra inch," she said. "I just feel like they've made it too complicated to get sick days."

Duffy is applying for Social Security disability, which she says is her only other option.

In the meantime, she gets up at her Spring Hill home and arrives at work at 7:30 a.m. for her eighth grade U.S. history classes. She doesn't stand at the board as much as she used to. Instead, she sits at her desk, and the students come to her.

"My kids can see it when I'm in pain," she said. "They've been wonderful."

She lies down on the faculty lounge couch during morning planning period and lunch. Some days, her colleagues sit in on her classes if she needs a break.

Then, around 3:15 p.m., she drives home, goes straight to her recliner and naps for two hours.

"I'm giving the best I can, but it's not the best I am," said Duffy. "I don't want to work until the day I die."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Cancer-stricken teacher in Pasco County denied access to extra sick days 04/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 3, 2009 9:06pm]

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