Hurt on the job

May 27, 2005
Hygienist describes her battle after work-related injury.

By Rosanne Bozenko, RDH

I write this article in order to share my experience with other dental hygienists. I have been in the dental field for more than 30 years and always loved my profession. I started my career as a dental assistant right out of high school. After raising my children, I decided to return to school and become a dental hygienist.

About a year ago, I noticed a mild pain in my shoulder that seemed to be getting progressively worse. My doctor found that I had a bone spur and the initial treatment options were cortisone shots, an anti-inflammatory, and physical therapy. I did them all and found no relief. He then suggested an MRI to evaluate the extent of any damage the spur caused. It showed there was a slight tear in the rotator cuff and that surgery was indicated. My doctor informed me that I would be out of work for six weeks.

I then reported to my employer that I would have to be out of work for six weeks. I told him I would incorporate it into my summer vacation so that technically I would only be absent for four weeks. He was not happy, but we talked about hiring a temporary hygienist to replace me during this time period. I had worked in this office for almost five years and never once did I have a problem with my employer. I realize that no office is perfect, but the doctor seemed to appreciate my skills and would always say "Whatever you say, boss," when I would consult with him about a patient.

Several weeks passed before he called me into his office to discuss the ad he placed with the newspaper for a temporary hygienist. He complained about how expensive it was to hire a temp through an agency. Then he started discussing production and the "bottom line" and that he would have to place an ad in the paper. I was not surprised until he said that if he found someone to replace me he could not just fire them when I was ready to come back. He repeatedly said that it was "only business." I was so shocked I could not even speak.

The next few weeks were difficult to say the least. He called me into his office once again and said that my "attitude" had changed. I asked him what he expected after telling me I would not have a job to come back to after my six-week recovery. He then recanted the entire story and denied saying any of it. My assumption was he had been advised that he could not fire me for being out on sick leave.

For about three weeks before my surgery, I was having a hard time working my 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule due to the pain I was in. I decided to cut back my hours and end my day at 4 p.m. It was quite clear at that point that my employer was very angry with me. Needles to say, my last few weeks took a toll on me both physically and emotionally.

I proceeded with the surgery. The recuperation went well, but it was difficult, long, and painful. While I was home recuperating I received my vacation check. I was stunned when I realized that he had paid me based on the 8-4 hours I had worked prior to my surgery, rather than the 8-6 hours I had been working for the four and a half years that I had been employed there. When I called him he said he would "think about" whether he would send me the rest of the money. I felt terrible but did not know if I had any recourse.

Not long after, I received a letter stating that he was terminating my employment stating that he had problems with my past performance. The funny thing was that in all the years I worked for him I never once received a complaint from him or a single patient. I called the state labor department and found out that since the office employed under a certain number of people that if I wanted to sue him I would have to do it privately. Such an action would mean a large cash outlay prior to any lawyer taking the case. Even though I had a very good case, there are no guarantees that you win. The state labor department said the law protects the small business owner, but, ironically, if he employed a larger number of people that I would win this case hands down.

Then, in June 2004 I read an article titled, "Upper Extremity Musculoskeletal Disorders in Dental Hygiene," that appeared in a dental hygiene publication. This article spelled out everything I was going through physically and that this was clearly a repetitive motion injury related to dental hygiene. I had always felt that to be the case, but since we do not have a union I had no one to consult with. I then decided to seek the help of an attorney to see if I would be entitled to workmen's compensation, since this is a work related injury.

When I requested my employer to fill out the paperwork he denied my claim and started fighting it. I also inquired if it was legal for him not to compensate my full vacation pay. My lawyer suggested I sue him in small claims court. It cost me $25 to sue him and he settled out of court, after a long ordeal with his attorney harassing me to back down. I did not and I collected my full pay!

Since he fought my workmen's compensation claim I was denied any services for my shoulder. I already had my surgery. so that was no problem. But I needed extensive physical therapy.

As a post-surgical complication, I wound up with adhesive capsulitis commonly known as a frozen shoulder. This is a condition where the muscles and capsule around the shoulder tighten up and there is severely limited mobility and pain. I required intensive physical therapy five times a week as well as a second surgery known as "open manipulation" to unfreeze the shoulder.

When I attempted to get approval from my insurance company, it was denied. At that point it was considered a workmen's compensation case. Since my employer was denying any liability, workmen's comp denied payment. I felt like a second-class citizen!

My doctor suggested that I switch physical therapists. The new therapist said he would submit my claim through my insurance. If it got denied, he would wait to be paid. I got lucky they did not question it. Since my surgeon could not do the manipulation without approval, I waited and I waited, going back and forth to court to no avail. My surgery was in July and it took until April to finally get settled. Fortunately I had taken out a personal disability policy, which I strongly recommend for everyone.

The financial burden for being out of work for all that time has taken a toll on my family. The emotional burden of going to court time after time to no avail has taken a toll on me. The feeling got when I received my compensation check did not make it all worthwhile, but it sure helped.

When we were in hygiene school we had so much support but as you go out into the world we are often isolated. We may not have any union representation but we need to be connected to our colleagues. The best way to do this is to join and stay active with your local component of the ADHA. I have been very active over the years and find it an invaluable place to share information. We need to understand that we do have rights and we should not be afraid to stand up for them.