Manitoba

Winnipeg Folk Festival employee says she survived cancer but lost her job in the process

Margaret Koshinsky says she was let go by the Winnipeg Folk Festival weeks before she was to return to work after fighting breast cancer.

Folk Festival says organization tried to accommodate Margaret Koshinsky

CBC's Caroline Barghout reports on the Winnipeg Folk Festival being the focus of a Manitoba Human Rights Complaint from a former employee who says she lost her job because she had cancer. 2:24

When Margaret Koshinsky was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in October 2013 she knew she would be in for the fight of her life. What she didn't bargain for was fighting to get back her job.

Koshinsky's doctor told her she had an aggressive form of the disease and so her treatment had to match.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival is an outdoor music festival that kicks off this weekend. (Travis Ross, photographer)
The 50-year-old started chemotherapy almost immediately while maintaining her position as manager of marketing and communications for the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a job she loved and had been doing for four years. 

Eventually the cancer treatment took its toll and a temporary replacement was hired to fill in while Koshinsky was on long-term disability.

"I had to stop in early February because I was very, very sick," said Koshinsky. "The goal was always for me to return to my job."

Koshinsky endured eight months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, and six weeks of radiation.

"That's all I did for one year and then when it was over. I was expecting to be feeling myself and it wasn't until then that my oncologist said, 'Actually the fatigue from the radiation peaks 12 weeks after you're finished. We're not expecting for you to be working again for at least a year,'" she said.

Cleared to return to work

By the fall of 2015, Koshinsky was feeling better and was medically cleared to go back to work. The insurance company asked her boss if she could be placed in a part-time shared position as a gradual return but that request was denied. Koshinsky was told based on the small size of the not-for-profit organization and the nature of her job, it could not be accommodated.  
Margaret Koshinsky survived cancer but lost her job in the process. (Margaret Koshinsky)

"They basically said that it was too difficult to accommodate," Koshinsky said. "After reviewing the work and giving consideration to it they didn't think it was possible."

Worried her boss would never approve a gradual return to work, Koshinsky contacted her insurance company to see if there was a way to get herself up to speed for full-time employment. They arranged for a trainer who put her through a rigorous 12-week work simulation program to build up her stamina for a typical work day.

Then in early February she got some good news. Her boss was prepared to let her come back on a gradual return. 
But weeks before her April 18 start date, Koshinsky learned her job had been filled permanently and she would not be reinstated. Her employment was terminated June 6, 2016, the same day her long-term disability coverage ended.

"I was told the organization's operations are the priority and it was such a busy time they needed to fill the job," Koshinsky said. "I kind of feel like I'm a little expelled from a community that I love,"

She believes the reason for her dismissal is that her boss doesn't think she can do the job at the same level she did before the cancer diagnosis.

"I was a valued employee before cancer, so what happened?," said Koshinsky.

Koshinsky consulted a lawyer and has filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. 

Folk Festival responds

"We attempted to accommodate Ms Koshinsky up to the point of undue hardship. We also ensured we protected her eligibility for benefits for the length of the leave," said Folk Festival Executive Director Lynne Skromeda. 

"We appreciate that she may have been disappointed with the results. We can confirm she filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and we have filed a reply that will be dealt with in that forum in due course," Skromeda said.

Can't fire due to disability 

"If the employer's decision to terminate the person on disability is because of the disability, that's offside," said Winnipeg Labour Lawyer Garth Smorang.

Smorang said discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, and disability is a violation of The Human Rights Code.

"The employer would have to show legitimate business reasons why that person was being let go. Downturn in business, your job is no longer available," said Smorang. "Solid reasons over and above 'It's a hassle' or 'We'd rather not because we're small and we don't have the resources to do that.'"

Smorang said like with a maternity leave, companies can't opt to hire someone else on a permanent basis just because they don't want to wait for the employee to return.

"Sometimes the barriers the employers raise are really barriers of convenience or barriers of past practice. 'This is how we've always done it' ... That's not going to be a good enough answer," he said.

If the Manitoba Human Rights Commission finds sufficient evidence to back Koshinsky's claims, her case could be referred it to an independent adjudicator. Smorang said in the past, adjudicators have recommended an employee be reinstated, or ordered companies to pay for lost wages.

"The Winnipeg Folk Festival is a publicly funded non-profit arts organization and the community upholds it to a higher standard," Koshinsky said. "I just don't feel it's appropriate for me to remain silent."

The company's website states, "We create environments that are welcoming, safe, accessible and respectful," an image Koshinsky says she worked hard to promote for years. She never imagined she'd have to find another job after battling breast cancer. 

"It's me and a dog and a mortgage," Koshinsky said. "It is definitely a financial hardship."

In the short term, she plans to use her savings to pay bills, but may be forced to sell her house if she doesn't find work soon. And while the stress of not having a job to go back to has been difficult, Koshinsky tries to focus on the positive.

"I'm just so very blessed to be healthy again, and nothing, not even this, can take away that joy."

About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: caroline.barghout@cbc.ca