GERALDINE’S STORY WAS SOLD AS AN EXCLUSIVE TO ‘THAT’S LIFE!’ MAGAZINE
As I swayed to the live music in a local pub, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a face I recognised.
“Hi,” I smiled. “Susan, right?”
Susan, a friend of a relative, nodded before sparking up a conversation.
We got chatting about jobs, and her ears pricked when I told her I worked in a care home.
“I’m the manager of a care home!” she said. “Why don’t you join us? You could get your NVQs …”
“Really?” I beamed.
I was happy in my job, but the idea of becoming a fully-qualified healthcare assistant was too exciting to ignore.
A few weeks water, in June 2009, I was at The Croft, in Reigate, ready to sign on the dotted line. But I’d just found something out.
“I don’t know whether you still want me to fill in these forms. I’m pregnant,” I announced.
“That’s fine,” she soothed.
I was two months pregnant when I started as a care assistant for adults with learning difficulties. And despite some morning sickness that tablets wouldn’t shift, I couldn’t be happier.
Me and husband Robert, 33, a mechanic, couldn’t wait to introduce a new sibling to Bethany, 10, and Faye, eight, and I finally had a job with prospects. It wasn’t long before my morning sickness got worse though.
Concerned, I called NHS Direct and rattled off my symptoms, namely persistent nausea. I was told it could be swine flu, prescribed an inhalation powder and told not to work. After a week off, still feeling awful, I went to the doctors.
“You’ve actually got a respiratory infection combined with hyperemisis, severe morning sickness,” the doctor confirmed.
Loaded with anti-sickness tablets, I returned to work. And that’s when things changed.
Colleagues started to resent the fact I wasn’t able to lift patients or handle bodily fluids, things I’d been told not to do after managers did a risk assessment. I went to the toilet one day and heard chatter through the paper-thin walls.
“She shouldn’t be here if she can’t do the job,” someone moaned.
“She can’t even lift people!” a voice added.
Catty comments became a routine, and colleagues complained when I used the residents’ lift to take laundry to the top floor.
I tried to not let it bother me and use the six flights of stairs, but after a couple of weeks lugging laundry I started to bleed. Panic surged through me. The baby!
A quick visit to hospital revealed everything was okay but, rather than share my relief, members of staff were just annoyed I’d left during a shift.
Against doctor’s advice, I was pressured to work excess hours. I’d also give plenty of notice about antenatal appointments but find my name scribbled on the rota to work those days. Then, nine weeks in, I arrived for a shift and Patience, a colleague, opened the door.
“Oh, it’s you,” she greeted, before shooting me a dirty look.
I scurried to the office and ate my breakfast inbetween sobs.
A supervisor passed by and, after asking how I was, I confided in her. A meeting was called between myself, Patience and Susan.
“I didn’t say that! I didn’t say anything!” Patience was screaming.
“Maybe you misheard, Geraldine,” Susan said. “You’re easily upset at the moment. It’s the hormones … with you being pregnant.”
I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing wrong with my ears!
There was now only one thing getting me through each day – the qualifications I’d have in the end. But the end was closer than I thought.
In the September, five months pregnant, I called up after a hospital appointment to check my upcoming shifts. Vicky, the assistant manager, answered.
“Do NOT come in,” she said. “You’ll be receiving a letter in the post.”
“What’s the letter for?” I asked, confused.
“Wait and see,” she snapped back.
Sure enough, a letter arrived the next day. My contract was being terminated for not fulfilling the job description!
I was crushed. The only reason I hadn’t been performing to the best of my ability was because of my pregnancy, which they were supposed to cater for.
Letter in hand, I visited QualitySolicitors Goodhand & Forsyth in Redhill, Surrey. They confirmed I had a case. I’d been sacked for being pregnant.
While waiting for a formal grievance meeting, Rob and I started to fall behind with rent and council tax payments. It was hard without my extra £900 a month earnings.
I tried to find other work but, heavily pregnant, could only get short-term office jobs. I couldn’t even claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because I’d been ‘dismissed’.
In November 2009 I had my meeting with Heddmara Limited, the owners of the home. They agreed to pay me what was owed – one week’s sickness pay and a few days’ holiday, together around £300 – after I showed them doctors’ notes. But they refused to accept my dismissal was pregnancy-related.
There was only one way to settle it – court.
In March 2010, Paige, now four, was born. It should have been a happy time, but it was tinged with anxiety because of the looming employment tribunal and growing debts. We were paying for our food shopping with credit cards!
When the day came, in September 2010, I was relieved to have support. The Equality and Human Rights Commission stepped in to fund the case and provide me with a barrister.
On the first day I presented my side of the story. My adoptive mum, Susan Agate, 48, also gave a statement based on the numerous teary conversations we’d had.
During the rest of the tribunal I was constantly called a liar by my old colleagues.
After four days the judges made their decision … and ruled in my favour! They recognised I’d been dismissed for reasons that clearly related to my pregnancy.
It was such a relief, but the relief didn’t last long – Heddmara decided to appeal.
It got denied, but they appealed again. Their THIRD appeal, however, was accepted.
It took another year before the case went back to court.
Luckily, I didn’t have to go, but I was still a nervous wreck waiting for the outcome.
“The judge was shocked it had even reached appeal and threw the case out,” my barrister told me after.
“Does that mean it’s over?” I asked.
“Yes,” she laughed. “It’s finally over.”
It was approaching Christmas 2011 when the cheque for £19,000 arrived. But rather than celebrate, most of it went straight towards the debts we’d built up in the two years since I was sacked.
Just £2,000 was left, which we used to treat the girls at Christmas – we’d been scrimping and saving previous years.
I was relieved it was all behind me, but the whole experience has left a dent in my life. I never got the qualifications and fear I never will. And besides the temporary jobs, I haven’t worked since.
I’ve spent the last few years being a stay-at-home mum to Paige and Michelle, now two, who we welcomed in October 2011.
I’d love to go back to work, but childcare costs are extortionate. I’ve got to wait a little longer before I can get back to work. And I’ll stay clear of care homes.
For now, it’s a comfort to know that no one else will be treated the same at The Croft – it’s since closed down.
John Wadham, at the time Legal Director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:
“Employers who make small and reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of their pregnant employees can continue to reap the benefits of their hard work and dedication.
“This judgement should serve as a reminder of what is expected of all employers, particularly those in this growing and female dominated sector.”