In this commentary, Casandra May, a former employee of an automotive manufacturing company, reflects on the challenges that disabled and chronically ill people often encounter in blue-collar workplaces.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
I spent over a decade employed by one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world. As a production assembly line employee managing several invisible illnesses, I quickly realized how inconvenient my issues were for the company.
Automotive manufacturing is labor-intensive work. In fact, the company referred to us as “industrial athletes” in an attempt to glamorize the damage we were doing to our bodies. The difference was that our salary was a joke in comparison to professional athletes.
The majority of blue-collar workers are seeking quick pay and decent benefits. Unfortunately, these rewards often come at the expense of a healthy work environment. Factory culture revolved around how many cars we could produce in a shift, despite claims of a focus on safety and quality.
I dealt with numerous health issues during the twelve years I spent with the company, including mental health issues, neurological disorders, and gastrointestinal illnesses. I did not feel respected, supported, or encouraged during any of these low points.
I remember the first time I was mistreated at work for an invisible illness. I was dealing with untreated bipolar disorder and ADHD, which involved extreme anxiety, hyperactivity, periods of major depression, and panic attacks. I tried my best to not cry on the job, but when these episodes were triggered, the tears were unmanageable.
As you can imagine, this had a negative effect on productivity. I eventually was able to manage my emotions enough to keep up, but this still involved crying, which made other employees uncomfortable.
One day, my boss witnessed me crying on the job. I had hoped my employer would be respectful and offer assistance, or at the very least demonstrate a level of professionalism.
Instead, her exact words were: “You’re going to have to grow up sometime.”
I was shocked at the ignorance. Here I was, mid-panic attack, gasping for air and trying to stop crying, and her solution was to talk to me as if I were just immature.
Her words infuriated me and fueled my tears. Ten minutes later she returned to the line, and upon seeing that even more distraught, said, “Oh god, you’re still crying?”
My job took a physical toll in addition to an emotional one. Chronic pain is a common invisible disability for many blue-collar workers, including me, as I dealt with. heavy components, fast process times, and repetitive motions. Within two years, I suffered from several torn muscles, ligaments, and chronic tendinitis throughout my body.
In 2020, I began experiencing severe pain in my back and left side. I requested to be seen by a medical professional onsite and was told it was probably muscular. The pain worsened and was accompanied by diarrhea up to twenty times a day. It wasn’t until the bleeding began that I realized something was truly wrong.
I went to the emergency department and was diagnosed with a bacterial infection of the colon called Clostridium difficile Colitis (CDI). This is a highly contagious infection that can result in bowel perforation and sepsis, and has a high fatality rate. For many patients, including myself, the infection is extremely difficult to eradicate due to its resistance to antibiotics.
It took six weeks for the first infection to clear and it returned less than a month later. I was on the job and recognized the pain immediately. I contacted my boss and was asked if I could wait to leave until a worker was available to relieve me. This once again demonstrated just how inconvenient my health issues were for the company.
After two recurrences, followed by another gastrointestinal illness called H. Pylori (a stomach infection), my financial situation was poor. I was told by my employer that my only option was to go out on long-term disability at a percentage of my former salary.
My mental health could no longer deal with mistreatment due to my health issues and I chose to resign from the company before I could be forced out. Sadly, the culture inside factory environments is usually centered around a “get over it” mentality, so workers try to keep quiet to avoid judgment and hold on to their jobs. But it’s time that blue-collar workers no longer have to suffer in silence. Disabled people in blue-collar America are worthy of safe, inclusive work environments.