Beating the Big C – cancer, and the council

For many people, working outdoors in the sun is a blessing. But for refuse loader David Lewis, living in the shadow of skin cancer, it became a curse

Four years ago David Lewis was diagnosed with skin cancer. The NHS wasted no time, and just a week after the diagnosis he had a successful operation to remove a large area of malign tissue from his right shoulder.

He’d beaten the cancer, though he would need to return to hospital for regular check-ups to ensure the melanoma remained in remission. After a course of physiotherapy and a period of recuperation, he was ready to return to work.

But from this moment on David needed to reduce his exposure to the sun. And so it seemed that his time as a refuse loader (what we used to fondly refer to as a binman) was at an end. Occupational Health advised that David be deployed to a permanent indoor role, or at the very least driving duties. As a short term measure, he should work outside only if equipped with UV protective clothing.

But his managers at Carmarthenshire County Council were not supportive about his predicament. Their response was to place David on the redeployment register, without what is known as “reasonable adjustment” for his medical condition, which is considered a disability under the Equality Act.

In other words, if he failed to find a suitable role in three months, he would be dismissed.

A life or death predicament

“The council had a duty of care to find me suitable employment,” recalls David, 45. “But their view was ‘find it yourself’. And with a short period of time to do it.

“They were far from sympathetic. And the thought of losing my job – so soon after the stress of learning I had cancer and the subsequent surgery – was terrible.”

David understandably refused to be placed on the register, and was returned to his loading duties. And so began a long battle with his employer that felt to him like a life or death predicament.

“I was really shocked by the attitude of the council. It took me a while to get to grips with how awkward and obstructive they were being, when I thought it was a straightforward thing. There was no common sense at all.

“It felt harder to deal with my managers than it was to deal with the cancer,” he adds ruefully. “At least with the cancer I had facts, I had support from the doctors and others. With the managers it was completely the opposite. I felt I was being segregated and bullied.”

Not much fun by the seaside

David continued to plead for a job that would minimise his sun exposure. He wrote to his MP, who in turn approached the council on his behalf, but without success. David’s meetings with his local councillor and the authority’s assistant chief executive also failed to improve his situation.

In fact, it got worse.

His lowest point was when he was assigned to litter picking – at the seaside. “The reason people go to the seaside is for sun. And I was there for two of the hottest summers on record,” he says, still unable to hide his bafflement and dismay.

And though he was assigned with a uniform to wear underneath his usual clothes, he was unconvinced that it was appropriate.

“In any case, it was supposed to be temporary, for three months, not four years. And being outside for a substantial part of the day made me extremely anxious. I was worried that the exposure would cause my cancer to come back.”

Looking back now, he says, “It really felt that the council wanted me to leave. But providing for my family made me fight on.”

UNISON steps in

Having kept all of his correspondence, along with a record of key dates, he finally embarked on a grievance procedure and approached his UNISON branch for help. He is full of praise for branch secretary Mark Evans and administrator Kelly Summerfield, as well as regional organiser Simon Dunn and the union’s solicitors, Thompsons.

“Mark and Kelly were absolutely horrified at what I told them. They said to me, ‘Relax, we’ll step in.’ They set the wheels in motion and took a lot of weight off my shoulders. Mark was always there with me in meetings, asking questions, shielding me.”

The branch contacted Acas and Thompsons. And eventually David’s case went to an employment tribunal, where he successfully claimed disability-related discrimination.

As well as awarding him just over £12,000 in compensation, for “injury to feelings”, the tribunal made a number of recommendations, among them that David be properly redeployed, and that the council improve its redeployment policy to consider reasonable adjustments.

Says UNISON legal officer Kate Ewing: “The recommendations are an important part of the remedy in discrimination cases. And this was a really good outcome that will have positive consequences for other members.

“Councils can be under no illusion that they are not required to comply with their legal duties towards staff with disabilities.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

And now, in his new office job as a business support officer in the council’s Department of Communities, dealing with its homecare services, David can breath a huge sigh of relief.

“Being out of the sun all day is pretty hard to describe. Maybe it’s like being up a ladder, petrified of heights, with the feeling of relief you have when you’re back on solid ground.

“I’m still going back every three months for check ups. And I’ve still got the constant fear that the cancer could come back. But now that I’m working indoors I can minimise the risk.

“It used to be that if was looking out of the window in the morning and the sun was shining, my heart would sink. I don’t feel that anymore.”

His experience has also encouraged David to become a UNISON steward.

“UNISON gave me a lifeline. They believed that I was in the right, and they worked and fought for me. I’m 100% sure that my problem wouldn’t have been resolved without the union. I would be unemployed now. That means so much to me.”

It was Mark Evans who suggested that David would make a good steward, having seen his handling of his own case, his record keeping and perseverance. And David saw it as an immediate way of giving something back to the union.

 “I’ve already repped quite a few cases, and been successful in a couple. I’m chuffed, it feels really satisfying,” he says.

“As a steward you have the backing of the union, access to all that knowledge, it’s fantastic. And if I have to deal with HR or management now, they know I’m up for a fight.”