A Commonwealth employee describes ongoing torment that threatened her life

I was the target of workplace bullying and discrimination. This is my story.

My career as a state employee started the summer of 1986; I had just finished my 1st year of college and was given the opportunity to work in the business office at a mental health facility in Boston. At the end of the summer, I was offered a part time position at a facility that was near campus. For the next 15+ years, I worked for three different agencies of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 2004, I accepted the offer of a position as a contracts specialist for the Department of Developmental Services in Danvers.

In May 2014, I had an accident at work. A step stool in the supply closet tipped over, and I fell off it. I didn’t know that the stool was broken since it had not been labeled as broken or taken out of service. I suffered severe injuries: a concussion, loss of some vision in my right eye, a torn labrum in my shoulder, bruised coccyx, and multiple bruises. Due to my fall, I have some permanent injuries which include a permanent acquired brain injury (ABI) and post-concussion syndrome (PCS). I was out of work for six weeks due to my injuries. When I returned to work, I was “greeted” by one of my coworkers with a sarcastic comment that was something to the effect that it must be nice to have had the summer off during the busy re-contracting season when she had to be at work; this was the start of my being bullied at work. I was not on vacation nor did I enjoy my time off, which was spent going to many medical appointments. Actually I had been scheduled to leave on a cruise the day after my accident but was unable to take this trip. Since I had travel insurance, I was able to reschedule my trip for the next year, but my supervisor denied my vacation request. Due to this denial of vacation time, I lost the money I paid for a vacation I never took. My supervisor told a couple coworkers that she denied my request for time off, so the week I would have been on vacation, they laughed at me and joked about what would I be doing if I were on vacation instead of at work.

In May 2016, I was approved to have shoulder surgery to repair my torn labrum. I was out of work for a few weeks and returned to work on light duty, with a sling on my dominant arm. When I returned to work, the bullying increased and was almost a daily event. My supervisor would not allow me to leave the building during the workday. I was only allowed 30 minutes for lunch and was not allowed to take my two 15-minute breaks. She had a different set of rules for me than the rest of the department. One day, I left the building for an hour to meet a furniture delivery at my house, which I recorded on my time sheet as my lunch break plus my two 15’s; my supervisor threatened to put me off payroll for lying about my time. I asked why other people in the department were allowed to put their breaks together and take an hour for lunch. She replied that was them and not me. Other staff in my department would go out for a walk at lunchtime and then sit in one office and talk while they were eating their lunch; they would take up to two hours for these breaks, but I was only allowed a half hour, which was not fair.

I have a severe allergy to peanuts and tree nuts for which I carry Benadryl and an EpiPen. Most of my coworkers knew of my allergy and were careful around me, but after some changes of staff, this changed. One day while sitting in a training, the coworker sitting next to me dropped her peanut butter cracker on my lap, brushed it off, and apologized. My skin is very sensitive to peanut oils, and I broke out in a rash that spread over my body. I had to immediately take Benadryl and leave work to go home to wash my clothes and take a shower. After that accidental incident, the bullies found my weakness. One day I was doing data entry, and my arm was getting itchy and blotchy.  My office mate picked up the folder I rested my arm on while typing and said it smelled like peanut butter. I don’t know if this was done on purpose or was an accident. After several incidents in a short time span, I went to the operations manager who oversaw my department and explained to him what was going on, He said he would look into it.  He talked to my supervisor and coworkers after I was gone for the day but never came back to me to let me know what came out of it. I was told by a coworker that the bullies told the operations manager that they were just joking and that I was too sensitive, so he laughed it off and allowed it to continue. One day, two of my coworkers stood in the hallway outside my office door and sang and joked about how much they love almond joy candy bars and that they were going to have them every day. I was told by a coworker that she was sorry I had this allergy but that she was not going to be careful around me and will have peanut butter in the office every day if she wanted to. Yes, it is MY allergy, and I always have to be careful and read food labels, but knowing that she is going to have it around me put me on high alert. One coworker kept a large jar of peanut butter on her desk, so I had to look at it every time I walked down the hallway.  When I would go into her office, she would ask me if I wanted some, and when I said no, she would laugh. My supervisor would put her peanut butter smoothie on my computer desk almost every morning laughing as she walked away.

As the bullying and discrimination (peanut/tree nut allergies and ABI are considered disabilities by the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]) became more frequent and more dangerous because of my allergy, I started telling more people and asking for help from management to no avail. I took my concerns to the operations manager, Human Resources, Labor Relations, the ADA coordinator, and union steward. Every time I went to someone for help, the staff involved was talked to, and the bullying got worse.

The regional operations manager who oversaw my supervisor would bring ice cream for our department from a nearby dairy. My bullies would request moose tracks, which contains peanut butter and made me unable to participate. One time, he brought moose tracks and strawberry ice cream. One of the bullies put the same ice cream scoop into both flavors, cross-contaminating them so I could not have anything. The operations manager knew about my allergy but never asked me if there was something he could get for me so that I was able to enjoy with the rest of my coworkers. I felt like he was rewarding the bullies by excluding me.

My department would occasionally plan to go out to lunch together. One time they went, I was not invited or told about this plan. When they were getting ready to leave the office, the bullies asked me if I was joining them and faked acting surprised when I stated that I didn’t know where they were going. They said things like “did we forget to include you again?,” followed by laughter. My supervisor told me if I wanted to go with them that she would adjust my time sheet when we returned to the office. In the past when we would go on these department luncheons, we did not have to use our accrued time, but if I wanted to go with them, I would be expected to use mine. Again, I was unfairly excluded.

My supervisor had a different set of rules for me than the rest of the department. It was unfair, and when I would question her, she would say that what she allows other staff to do is none of my concern and that if I didn’t like her rules, there’s the door. She would change my time sheet almost every week always with an excuse that I was away from my desk on this day, that I took too long going to the ladies room, etc.. My supervisor would constantly ask me if someone could verify that I had arrived to work on time in the morning, so I started asking an employee on my hallway if he would verify my arrival time if asked by my supervisor. No one else in the department had to verify when they arrived or justify why they were away from their desk.

I was called stupid, which I am not; I have a Bachelor’s of Science degree in business management from a well-known business college from which my graduating GPA was 3.65. I was asked if I carried an EpiPen because I might need to use it, told that it would be funny to see me go into anaphylaxis, not allowed access to computer applications to do my job, not included in staff meetings, not given information so that I was uninformed and made mistakes, and passed over for several promotions that I was qualified for. I was also told that if I did go into anaphylaxis, they would not call my family.

I was beginning to dread going to work — walking on eggshells, using disinfectant wipes on shared equipment and my work space, constantly being on alert. I was having panic and anxiety attacks almost daily, which caused my PCS headache to increase. The bullying was causing me to get physically ill. I have ulcerative colitis, which had been in remission for over 10 years but started to flare up, my blood pressure was high, I had chest pains, I was not sleeping well, I started to isolate myself from others, and I had migraines regularly.

On July 29, 2016, I was called into my supervisor’s office to discuss my time sheet, which was becoming a weekly event. I said I did not want to talk about it as she was going to change it to what she wanted like she always did. She insisted that I go into her office, so I did. She stood in front of the closed door, and I felt trapped, which caused me to have a panic attack. I’m a survivor of domestic abuse and have PTSD, so being stuck in a small room with someone blocking the doorway was an uncomfortable situation for me. I was breathing heavily, having chest pains, felt my heart pounding in my chest, and knew that I had to get out of that room and get out of the building to fresh air, so I pushed her hand off the door knob, stepped into the hallway, went to my desk for my keys and pocketbook, and told her I was leaving for the day. She hollered that she would need to verify what time I arrived that morning and adjust my time because I was leaving early. On my way out of the building, I stopped in the Recruitment Office and asked an employee there if he would verify when I arrived that morning. I left the parking lot and went to see my primary physician. She gave me a note to be excused from work, and we started a treatment plan. I was put on FMLA and was denied workers comp. I was told that my allegations had been thoroughly investigated, and they found no merit to them.  Staff who came forward as seeing and hearing things that were happening to me were told to stay out of it but if they needed more information they would ask for it. Other staff said that they heard and saw nothing because they were afraid of retaliation; I think they thought “better you than me.” How is an investigation thorough if they only speak to those who they want to speak to? I appealed the workers comp denial, and after eight months, it was approved by a judge who put in place a payment order.

My doctors stated that I could return to work if I was moved to a peanut-free, bully-free environment and that it was in the best interest of my health to report to a different supervisor. The ADA coordinator from Central Office made a scheduled appointment with my supervisor to assess my workspace. I received a call from her asking me why I should expect other people to keep peanut/tree nut products away from me when the candy dish on my desk was full of peanut-containing products. Anyone who knows me knows that I would not have candy containing peanuts in my candy dish. I believe that someone had put these items in my candy dish because they knew she was coming. I was told by the human resources manager that I would not be moved to another office nor report to a different supervisor as they don’t do that for anyone even though other staff members had been moved and reassigned in the past. The manager who oversees my department has two other supervisors reporting to him, so I could have been moved to their work area and do the same job, but management would not explore these options to accommodate me. I received a letter stating that my desk would be peanut-free and that I was expected to return to work. Because someone had put peanut products on my desk while I was out, and all the other incidents had occurred, I did not feel like I would be safe in that office, so I did not return at that time.

In August 2017, I was “separated from service to no fault of my own.”  My union, National Association of Government Employees, filed a grievance on the grounds of unlawful termination on my behalf. There was a grievance hearing in September 2017, and I was told we would get a report of the findings in 4-6 weeks. It has been over a year, and I have not received anything regarding that hearing.

In September 2017, a five-year old boy with a peanut allergy died after he was accidentally fed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a New York day care. In November 2017, a three-year old boy from New Jersey with a dairy allergy died when he was accidentally given a grilled cheese sandwich at day care. In December 2017, a 14-year old high school freshman in Pennsylvania with a pineapple allergy went into anaphylaxis after some students snuck a can of pineapple into the school cafeteria. The school went pineapple- and peanut-free to accommodate students and staff with allergies. These girls rubbed the juice on their hands and then high-fived the girl with the allergy; she went into anaphylaxis and was saved by fast-acting staff. Statistically, there are more deaths every year due to exposure to peanuts than any other food allergy.

Some people say that I’m paranoid, but I don’t think I am. I would say that I am cautious and don’t want to be a tragic statistic. If I were to return to my previous job at the same desk, how am I supposed to feel safe? Candy containing peanuts were put on my desk when the ADA coordinator went to my workplace for a planned meeting to assess my work space, my supervisor brings a peanut butter smoothie into my office, and the regional operations manager buys moose tracks ice cream for my department knowing it excludes me. These staff are being rewarded for bad behavior, and I’m being punished for having a disability.

There are plenty of places that have gone peanut-free and fragrance-free to accommodate people with allergies, but my agency (that provides services to disabled individuals) was not willing to do that for me. They could have assigned a peanut-free section in the shared refrigerator, made my department (10 staff members in seven offices) peanut-free, designated an area where peanut/tree nut products could be eaten; there are lots of options they chose not to explore. Other staff have been reassigned to a different department and supervisor for various reasons, but I was not given this opportunity.

It has been more than two years since I walked out of my office. During this time, I have gotten myself therapy and medication to help deal with my anxiety and depression. Since the bullying and discrimination began in 2014, my life has changed significantly. I have spent days in bed, un-showered and wearing the same clothes. I have prayed and asked God to take me out of this life or give me the strength to get through this nightmare. I continue to wake up every day and try to find my inner strength. I have gone days and weeks without leaving the house. I have lost some friends because I don’t want to leave the house or don’t have money to go places with them. I could not pay my bills in full and/or on time because I was not earning a full salary, I had no health insurance and wasn’t able to afford medication and costly medical equipment, my credit score has gone down, and I could lose my house because I don’t have the money to pay my mortgage.

Looking for a new job was very difficult, as I was not sure how or where I fit into the workforce. After 30 years working for the Commonwealth, it is hard to explain to prospective employers why I left. I have been told by several companies that I am over-qualified for the positions they are hiring for and don’t get the opportunity of an interview. For the past six months, I have been working in a peanut-free childcare center working in an infant room. Even though the pay is significantly less than I was earning working for the Commonwealth and the benefits are not what I was used to, I love my job and look forward to going to work instead of dreading it.

Being bullied and harassed has impacted every aspect of my life. I have no idea why they did this to me nor do I understand why it was allowed to go on for so long and get worse when I would go to management for help. I probably never will. I don’t know why management was unwilling to accommodate me so that I can return to work and feel safe nor do I understand why they did not take any disciplinary action against the staff who bullied and harassed me. What I do know is that I have slowly taken back control of my life and am trying to move forward. I am determined to prove to those bullies — and to myself — that they may have knocked me down, but I’ve gotten back up and I’m stronger than I was before this happened to me.

Share your workplace bullying story. Email to [email protected] in one page along with an optional photo:

Where did you work and what did you do?
How did the bullying begin? What tactics were used?
How did you feel?
How did it escalate?
How did your employer react (or not react)?
What was the impact on you?
What was the impact on the organization?
Why do you want workplace bullying legislation to pass?
What advice do you have for others going through bullying at work?

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