employee calls out sick because she “ate too much,” texting cute photos to people on vacation, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Should I step down from a stressful union negotiating committee?

I am on the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) negotiating committee at my work, and we are in the midst of an ugly, protracted, battle with management. Every time we meet for negotiations, the management rep spends the majority of the time hurling verbal abuse at us, especially at the women on the committee. It is deeply demoralizing. We have several grievances pending with the National Labor Relations Board, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, the wait time to be heard is many months.

This used to be an organization that retained employees for life. Now we are seeing unprecedented turnover. I am looking for a new job, too, but haven’t had any luck yet.

My fear is that management intends to fire me or eliminate my position as retaliation for participating in negotiations. A department head drunkenly confessed on a recent business trip that he was being pressured to “get his people in line” because three of my fellow committee members work in his department, so I don’t think my fears are unfounded.

I know that this would be illegal and that my union would support me, but I honestly can’t afford the fight. I’m in the middle of an expensive divorce and am struggling with my new role as a single parent of two small boys, one with special needs. After every negotiation meeting, I am left feeling anxious and depressed for days. Should I step down for the sake of my mental health, and to hopefully remove myself from the crosshairs? Should I continue fighting for the benefit of the unit? I’d hate to let them down or signal defeat. I’m not sure what to do and would appreciate your advice.

Your company is behaving awfully, and this is a good example of how companies get away with violating labor laws, because the agencies charged with enforcing them are backlogged.

You have to do what’s best for you and your family. I don’t know if that means stepping down or not, but if you decide it does, there’s no shame in that. Of course you don’t want to let down your bargaining unit, but you can’t fight effectively in the long term if you don’t take care of yourself. You are not the one person who is holding this together (and if you are, it’s likely to collapse at some point anyway). I know that can be a dangerous argument — after all, if everyone lets themselves off the hook that way, who will be left doing the work? But you’re dealing with exhausting, emotionally draining, highly stressful things in your life right now, and it’s okay if you decide that you need to streamline right now. That wouldn’t mean you never advocate for anything ever again, just that in your (and your family’s) long-term needs to take a break right now.

Again, I don’t know if that’s what you should conclude or not — but there’s no shame in it if you do.

2. Texting pet pictures to employees who are on vacation

One of my direct reports is on vacation for the first time in a long time. We are in the middle of a very demanding project, and she has been working many overtime hours over the last few months. I think my employee’s time away will only help her build up stamina to see her way through the next four to five months of long hours and tough deadlines on this project.

Today was her first day away from the office, and midway through the day, my boss texted a group of us with cute pet pictures. That resulted in a bunch of replies from two of the four other people on the thread. This isn’t that out of the ordinary, and, yes, pet pictures can be a nice thing to bond over. But it bothers me that my direct report was included on the chain, even about something as innocuous as a dog update, when she should be enjoying her time away and not thinking about work.

My boss and my boss’s boss have both texted me multiple times while I’m away on vacation, either with work questions or with things like kid/pet pictures, so it seems like this is a part of their work culture that they enjoy.

Do I let this go because, hey, everyone loves a cute puppy picture and people can mute conversations if they want? Or do I gently ask my boss to rethink her texting habits when people are taking vacation time?

I get where you’re coming from because even though the text was social in nature, sometimes it’s easier to fully disconnect from work when your colleagues’ names aren’t popping up on your phone, regardless of the reason.

That said, are you sure that your boss remembered your staff member was on vacation? There’s a decent chance that she simply didn’t realize it (it’s normal not to remember the vacation schedules of staff two levels down from you), rather than that she intentionally texted a vacationing employee. If that’s the case, there’s not a lot you can do here, other than encouraging employees to mute work texts that they receive while they’re away.

But if you’re sure that your boss remembered your staffer was on vacation and included her anyway … well, if this weren’t part of a larger pattern, I’d still probably leave it alone. But the bigger pattern of your boss and her boss texting people while they’re away — both for social and work reasons — is worth addressing. I wouldn’t address this one dog photo specifically, but would have a “I want to make sure that people can truly disconnect from work when they’re on vacation” conversation. You also might need to announce before you go on vacation that you’re going to mute work texts while you’re gone (and then really do that), and encourage your staff members to do the same.

3. Employee keeps calling out sick because she “ate too much”

One of my direct reports, “Stacia,” has been working with us for about three months. In this span of time, she’s called out sick five times all because she “ate too much.” Now, I’m no doctor but the symptoms she’s described like vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea seem a little extreme for just having overindulged at the weekend cookout. Plus, routinely she takes bathroom breaks that are upwards of a half hour long. All together, I can’t tell whether these call-outs stem from an issue that is frivolous and fully avoidable (which honestly, was my first guess — if eating too much fully takes you out for the entire next day, then maybe don’t do it Sunday night?) or whether this could be an underlying medical problem that will likely recur (my current layman’s suspicion). If it’s the latter, Stacia seems fully unaware of the possibility and writes all of this off as normal consequences of having too much to eat.

I’m not sure how to broach this. Any input is appreciated.

Yeah, calling out sick because you “ate too much” is going to come across a little odd if it happens one time. Five times in three months makes her look like she’s being strangely cavalier about coming to work reliably.

It’s certainly possible that this is a medical condition and she either doesn’t realize it or mistakenly thinks this explanation will sound better. Your job isn’t to sort that out for her, and it would be overstepping to try to do that. Rather, you need to let her know that based on the facts she’s given you so far, this is happening too frequently … that if it is a medical condition, you can discuss potential medical accommodations … and that if it’s not, you need her to be at work more reliably.

You could say this to her: “You’ve called out sick five times in the last few months, each time saying it was because you ate too much. We need you here to be here reliably, and I’m concerned that this has become a pattern. I want to be clear that if you have a medical condition that’s causing this, we can explore whether there are ways for us to accommodate that. But otherwise I do need you to be here more reliably.”

4. How do you bounce back from being an awful employee?

I have a bunch of disabilities and for many years did not have proper medical care for them. Because of this, while I was still working, I was an absolutely godawful employee. I was chronically tardy or absent, I never got work done on time and was sloppy, I frequently made very unprofessional comments, and I fell asleep at work. More than once.

Basically, I was one of those intern horror stories. It all makes me cringe now, but at the time I wasn’t getting the help I needed.

Because of all this nonsense, I have a very spotty work history. I have multiple jobs I’ve been fired from — sometimes in less than a week. I don’t have a college degree. I’ve done a lot of temping and freelancing, but I’ve never kept a “real” job more than six months. I’m not working right now, but I might have to join the workforce again sometime in the future.

So my question is: if you were the nightmare employee, can’t get good references, and have big gaps in your resume, how do you get yourself back in the game?

Typically a spotty work history like this doesn’t mean you can never get hired again. It means that you need to work for less desirable employers for a while — like retail, call centers, or other relatively low-paying jobs where it will be easier to get hired with this kind of work history — to build a solid work history back up. Do that for long enough and in time you can parlay it into slightly better jobs, and then into slightly better jobs again. That’s not a quick process, because you’ll need to stay at each job for a good solid amount of time — ideally at least two years, with three being better. So it’ll be slow, but it can be done. (There’s advice on doing it here.)

In a situation like this, it’s also easier to get hired by someone who knows you, or by someone who knows someone who knows you. People who know and like you will be more willing to give you a chance. So lean on your network and see if that turns anything up. If it does, it might be a shortcut through the steps above.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t need to list every job on your resume. Leave off the jobs that you were fired from after six months or less — they won’t add enough to make them worth the downside of potentially having to discuss the firing or having those references checked. Plus, it sounds like you can truthfully say “I was dealing with a health issue that has since been resolved” to explain some of those gaps or short-term stays.

And don’t discount the temping and freelancing. I don’t know how much of it you did, but it there’s a decent amount of it, you can probably group all the temping under one overall heading and all the freelancing under one overall heading so that it looks more cohesive and intentional than listing it all out separately. (“Freelance editing, 2012-present” with the details listed in bullet points below will look a lot better than just listing seven different short-term freelance jobs.)

5. Should I send an email acknowledging a mistake in my cover letter?

I recently committed one of the most egregious errors of applying for a job. It would be my first internship in college and while applying for the job, I accidentally addressed my cover letter to the wrong person. Now, it may be okay to attempt to address a cover letter to the wrong person rather than just “Dear Recruiter,” but in this case, I addressed it to the name of the company, thinking it was the name of an HR person. The company is referred to by its initials and the full name is not very well advertised if you Google it. Imagine that the company’s name was Anna Banana Cristiana or ABC, and I addressed the cover letter to “Ms. Cristiana,” TWICE.

I must admit, I hadn’t researched the company that well, but the company was exactly like one that I had previously interned at and I felt that I would be great for the role because of my prior experience with the position. But this is one of the companies I’m more interested in, and I’m so embarrassed and I don’t know how to go forward with it. Should I send them a follow-up email, apologizing profusely, or should I just not address it at all, hoping they will overlook it? Please help!

You’re almost certainly not the first person who has done it and they’re probably used to it — that’s what happens when you have a company name that sounds like a person’s name — but you’re right that it doesn’t look great in the context of a job application. I’d send a quick follow-up email saying something like, “How embarrassing — I know, of course, that there is likely no Ms. Cristiana there. I apologize for the mistake, and promise you that I’m normally able to put two and two together better than that.”

{ 503 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    OP1: At the very least, don’t forget to document *everything* that was being said to you, especially the stuff from your drunken managers. You’re likely to need it later.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      If OP has the bandwidth to step back from negotiations but to keep documenting the implied threats, then I agree that they should do so. It might also be helpful to remember that many employment lawyers, including those who specialize in labor relations law, will work on contingency. So although litigation is exhausting, it may not be unaffordable/expensive.

      But it sounds like OP has to make whatever decision is best for their mental health, even if that means sacrificing documentation. Having been in multi-month bargaining marathons with an employer who has over 120+ substantiated bad-faith-bargaining claims each year, I don’t think anyone outside of the negotiations truly understands the level of stress and toxicity there can be. It definitely followed me home, and I can’t imagine how I would have kept it together if I were also afraid of losing my job while in the middle of a divorce and a transition to single parenthood.

      1. Lora*

        “I don’t think anyone outside of the negotiations truly understands the level of stress and toxicity there can be.”

        THIS. Holy moly, you will walk out of negotiation sessions with your soul tarnished, wondering how such horrible minions of the devil can live with their disgusting selves. To this day, I struggle to believe such individuals are fully human.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          “wondering how such horrible minions of the devil can live with their disgusting selves.”
          To me it seems like a combination of denial and thinking they’re privileged/entitled.

    2. LQ*

      Somehow I missed the part about the drunken confession the first read, sheesh!

      This does actually seem like a really good time to document what happened. It would be helpful with the NLRB or any other actions that would come up to have accounts as factual as possible to help recount what happened.
      I’m currently in document everything land and it was making me feel horrible, so I have a note to myself at the top of my document about why I’m doing it and why it matters to be there in those fights. And then I have another notebook I fill out after where I write down one good thing I did to help people out for the day. It makes the end of the day a lot easier if it isn’t on a horrible note.

      1. serenity*

        Thanks for sharing your story, OP. I think this is also a wake-up call as to why unions and labor organizing can be so important.

        I know this isn’t going to be popular to say here, but there have been more comments bashing and degrading unions on AAM over the years than I care to count. This is an important counterpoint.

      2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Does your union have an employee emergency fund you could access if laid off? It might be good to check on whether or not you step back, in case your employer decides to go after all activists, not just those on the negotiations team.

        Either tough negotiations or a divorce would be difficult to handle for anyone. Both at once sounds like hell. Good luck, with whatever you decide is the next right thing for you.

      3. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        OP, it’s great that you are documenting everything. I had a relative who led a collective bargaining team. After the negotiations ended, her employer decided they were overstaffed…by one person. You can guess which person was the one. My relative had documented everything and did so in real time. After the “layoff” was announced, she had her attorney inform the employer that they were going to the NLRB and included some (but not all) of the documents. Her management’s attorneys let them know it would be cheaper to settle instead of going through the NLRB process. She got a full early retirement with pension.

        It cannot hurt to get advice from an attorney now. He or she can help you know what and how to document so if you are in this situation, you have a higher chance of a positive outcome.

      4. Thursday Next*

        I’m sorry about what’s happening, and also sorry that the NLRB doesn’t have the teeth it should.

        Just adding my voice to those that are saying you need to do what’s best for your family—whatever that is.

      5. Halmsh*

        OP, I’m sorry you’re going through this. I was also on the bargaining committee at my last job, and it was incredibly draining. I eventually left my job after 4 months of bargaining, with the support of my committee members.

        At the outset of electing our committee, we talked with our organizer about what we would do if we needed to step back, and we designated some back-up unit members for bargaining, because a lot of our staff traveled frequently which made have a consistent BC difficult. I think you should talk to your committee and organizer about your bandwidth, and see if they can help formulate a plan for you to take some sessions off or nominate someone to replace you.

        It was so hard for me to leave, and I felt like I was letting everyone down. One night, after bargaining, I was commiserating with another member of the committee, who said, “you sound really burned out. You should think about quitting.” I really needed to hear that from someone! And I’m glad I listened. The burnout has certainly followed me in my next gig, but being able to detach and keep myself insulated from issues at work has been really helpful.

        Do what’s right for you, OP. There are ways you can thoughtfully set up your BC to succeed in your absence. I’m sorry you’re going through this, but please take care of yourself so you can support your family and your colleagues.

      6. AKchic*

        I just want to say this:

        You are amazing.
        I know divorce is hard (I’ve done it twice), single parenting is hard (3 kids of those two divorces), and being a single parent while working is hard (self-explanatory). Add in everything else and you are a warrior. I have nothing but praise for you. And an internet hug. If we were in the same town, I’d arrange lunch and flowers delivered to you, a baby-sitter and a girls night. Girls night being a night off where we’d do absolutely nothing but veg in front of a tv somewhere. Separately if that is your desire. Because you have so earned a night off.

        At the end of the day, you need to decide what is best for you. Your cup is finite and if it is empty, it is empty. Do let the rest of your bargaining team know what you were told. All of you should decide how to proceed.

        And again – warrior. Much respect. No matter what you choose to do, I’m going to support your decision. You can find me on fb. The link is connected to my username.

    3. Linzava*

      I’ll admit, I know nothing about union negotiations, but could your group possibly reach out to another local union for support? Maybe there’s a bulldog union leader in your city who can help counteract the intimidation tactics. Again, I don’t know the rules, but if they play dirty, maybe there’s a creative way to push back.

      The way they’re treating you is upsetting, I really hope you take care of yourself first. I would also be sure to let all the workers know what’s happening behind the scenes, together you’re stronger.

      1. Nita*

        Agreed, I hope there are other ways to push back. NLRB may not get involved before much more damage is done. Although… given everything going on in OP’s life, she may have to step back from the negotiations anyway, or find someone to split her efforts with. There’s only so much stress one can take on, especially when it’s coming at you from both sides (work and home) so there’s no place to take a breather.

      2. Lora*

        True; some of the contract language can also be boilerplate so you don’t have to write it all from scratch. That said, I used to find some terrifying errors on the boilerplate things and wonder how the heck it got past multiple uses with nobody noticing that they’d provided a heck of a loophole…

      3. Halmsh*

        Media strategy can be super effective for this – we went big and put lots of pressure on via news outlets and social media, which really freaked out our management.

        Additionally, when the NLRB wasn’t processing our pending case quickly enough (management contested our unit) we actually went to the NLRB offices in person to inquire. It helped a lot! So if you’re in the US, you can go there, or if in another country, take a similar action with your relevant government body.

  2. Greg NY*

    #3: More broadly, you’re expected to make an effort to avoid illnesses that are within your control. It’s similar to calling in sick from being hungover. Food allergies or intolerances, when you know it’s going to happen, is another. Not only are your colleagues and manager counting on you, but it helps preserve your reputation for when you really need to be out, such as for a bad cold or the flu.

    Another dating analogy: would you do these things that would make you unable to go on dates you scheduled? Probably not. Apply the same line of thinking toward missing a day of work.

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      Honestly, I don’t think the majority of people with a food allergy are going to knowingly eat that food. Food allergy reactions are generally not within your control (and I rank food allergy reactions as just as bad as the flu and worse than a bad cold).

      There’s a big difference between food intolerance and food allergy reactions for a lot of people, and I don’t think its fair to consider them the same thing.

      1. lyonite*

        But whatever the cause is, it’s up to the employee to figure it out and deal with it (or request appropriate accommodations), not just shrug their shoulders and keep missing work.

        1. all aboard the anon train*

          Yes, but I’m just saying that food allergies aren’t usually a case of, “I made a choice to eat this food and now I’m sick!”. It’s more, “I didn’t know I ate this food or ate food that came in contact with my allergen until I became sick”. You’re not getting sick and missing work by choice, which I think is different than missing sick by eating food you know will make you sick.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Sure, but the employee in the letter isn’t saying she had an allergic reaction; she’s saying she’s over-ate. So I don’t want the discussion to derail on allergies when that’s not the situation she’s reporting.

            1. all aboard the anon train*

              Got it. I was responding to Greg NY’s comment saying that food allergies are within someone’s control. I admit I have a knee jerk reaction because I’ve had enough people (and work) try to blame me if I’ve gotten sick or had to miss work because I unknowingly ingested one of my allergens.

              I’ll leave it there though!

              1. pleaset*

                “different than missing sick by eating food you know will make you sick.”
                This is what he wrote about. Same thing.

                He wrote “Food allergies or intolerances, when you know it’s going to happen.”

              2. Baby Fishmouth*

                Yeah, I think he means something like what my former coworker did: She was allergic to chocolate, but ate a giant slice of chocolate cake brought in ‘because it looked so good!’.

                We had no sympathy for her when she wound up getting violently ill later that afternoon.

            2. Michaela Westen*

              The symptoms this employee is describing could be from certain kinds of food allergies, or from other digestive disorders. It sounds like she doesn’t know she needs medical care for this and if it is food allergies, it sounds like she doesn’t know what she’s allergic to.

          2. Other Office*

            I was on a team of two with a guy who had ‘IBS’ through he kept saying he had a dicky tummy and the dr said they couldn’t find anything wrong with him but ‘perhaps’ he had IBS. He was told to stop drinking so much alcohol, stop eating bread and pasta. There were loads of things he was told he couldn’t consume. He continued to drink to drunkenness several nights a week. He continued to eat the things he was told not to eat every day. He continued to spend a good 4 hours of a 10 hour day ‘in the toilet’. His phone accompanied him on all these toilet sojourns. I got a new job because I couldn’t stand to carry a teammate who couldn’t look after himself to dr’s orders to keep himself out of the toilet for a full half of his work day. People who needed to ask him things used to just go look for his shoes and ask through the stall door he was in there so much. We used to tell people who couldn’t find him to ‘look in his other office.’ His inability to follow his dr’s orders to be fit to be at work was turned into all our problem and he was doing it with full knowledge of the consequences. Don’t discount people know how these things will effect them, their performance and their colleagues. Some of them just don’t give a care.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah. As a person with a non-anaphylaxis-inducing food allergy, I avoid things I’m allergic to at almost all costs.

        I agree with Alison. If the employee is experiencing debilitating GI symptoms, they could easily have an undiagnosed GI problem. But if they’re not experiencing distress and coming up with an extremely odd excuse, it’s helpful to let them know what expectations are and that the excuse they’re using is coming across as non-credible.

        1. Thursday Next*

          Is the issue the employee’s credibility, or her reliability? Because I don’t think it’s OP’s place to call the employee’s credibility—regarding reporting her own symptoms—into question. That would be patronizing, and potentially dismissive of a real medical condition.

          Reliability is well within a supervisor’s purview to discuss, and raising the possibility of discussing medical accommodations also walks the correct side of the boundary.

          1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

            We can believe that the employee is calling out because she has diarrhea and vomiting, but the problem is that unless a serial killer is force feeding you to into an example of one of the seven deadly sins, these are not things that happen when you overeat. So either the employee has a medical condition that they know about that they are struggling with and unwilling to disclose to their manager (in which case they need to realize that their excuse makes them look really bad and out of touch); or they have a medical condition and are unaware of (in which case they really should go to a doctor ASAP); or (probably least possible) they are exaggerating the symptoms (in which case they also need to realize how bizarre this all sounds. This would be almost like someone calling out frequently because they said they were bleeding from the eyes, but then being super casual about it.

            1. Thursday Next*

              The fact that the LW knows the symptoms undercuts any need to speculate about the cause. It’s not the overeating that’s keeping the employee out, but the diarrhea and vomiting.

              That Xanax letter the other day got a lot of comments (including from PCBH) insisting that it’s not someone’s place to tell someone else to talk to a doctor. I disagreed with that in that instance, because the person in question was coming in to work noticeably impaired.

              In this letter, the manager’s concern is that the employee show up more reliably. Telling her that her overeating claim is BS doesn’t accomplish that—plus, as others have noted, for people who’ve had gastric bypass, overeating does produce those symptoms.

              There’s a lot of talk on this site about not monitoring what other people put into their mouths, and disputing someone’s report of overeating isn’t consistent with that ethos.

              1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

                The original script does not call for saying the overeating claim is BS, it calls for telling the employee that they have not been reliable and they need to address that. I even said that I thought it was the least likely possibility out of three, and never said that the OP should tell the employee it was a suspicion.

                The employee is the one making it sound like her own behavior is the reason she is calling out. By saying she is overeating instead of just saying she has diarrhea and vomiting (which she could have done, it sounds way more reasonable) she is telling her manager that she directly caused these results.

                And while what we put into our mouth’s is none of our coworker’s business usually, it becomes a concern of the company if you are missing work because of it. If you were drinking so much you missed work for a hangover, if you were eating lots of ice cream when lactose intolerant and missed work, or even if you ate so much at a company function that you threw up – these are all things a manager might have to address. All we know is that the employee either needs to stop missing work or request formal accommodations for a medical issue – and that does need to be addressed.

                1. Thursday Next*

                  I was agreeing with Alison’s advice. Just not with PCBH’s “it’s helpful to let them know the excuse they’re using is non-credible.”

                2. Observer*

                  Well, I think that the whole “don’t monitor” bit can go too far, and this is a classic example of this.

                  Most of the time, what you eat is no one else’s business. But when you MAKE it their business you can’t complain about someone “monitoring” you. The employee keeps on telling her boss that she overate and THAT is the reason she can’t come in. That makes it the boss’ business.

              2. Washi*

                I think the thing that is sticky here is that overeating is not a good reason to miss work, especially not that often, but having a medical condition is. So understanding the cause a little better is important if the employee wants a good reference and to keep this job. This employee either needs an accommodation or to be more reliable and those would be handled very differently from the manager’s perspective.

                1. Has food intolerance that feels like this*

                  As someone whose food intolerance symptoms include feeling like I over ate for a while, on top of the other unpleasant symptoms, I could definitely see someone who isn’t aware they have an intolerance feeling the “I am so full it hurts” symptom and falsely attributing all other symptoms to the mistaken belief that they ate too much.

                  It’s not particularly likely, because any somewhat intelligent person is going to go “but all I’ve had today is this tiny snack…..” but it’s possible if they haven’t had the misfortune of eating something small that contains whatever makes them sick they haven’t realized that yet.

                2. sam*

                  I’ll also note that it can sometimes be really difficult to get a food intolerance-related condition diagnosed. I have a good friend with Celiac, and she walked around in pain for years, going to multiple doctors, before she found one that actually figured out what her problem was and didn’t do things like misdiagnose her or (even better!) tell her it was all psychosomatic.

                  The level of stress involved in being told the very real pain (and symptoms!) your experiencing are all in your head doesn’t exactly help with these types of conditions. Not to mention the expense involved in having to go see a lot of specialists, even with halfway decent health insurance.

                3. designbot*

                  @Has food intolerance I was also thinking that this sounds like chronic pancreatitis, which is an incredibly serious disease. I know we’re not meant to internet diagnose, but I just wanted to bring up the possibility because the range of potential options here includes some real doozies, and it could be doing the employee a kindness to prod her to get this checked out and not just accept that periodically experiencing this level of gastro distress is her normal.

                4. Michaela Westen*

                  @Sam and all, I ended up diagnosing my own food allergies and learning to manage them mostly without the help of doctors, because they are way, way behind where I need them to be in understanding and treating these non-IgE allergies.
                  That’s why I usually recommend keeping a food and symptom diary and looking for patterns, or an elimination diet under a doctor’s supervision.

            2. The Mouse*

              HA, this reminds me of a friend’s boss, who called her at work one morning and said, “Sue, I can’t come in today. I can’t see.” My friend replied, “You can’t SEE? Are you going to the hospital??” and he responded, “No, I’m sure I’ll be okay tomorrow.”

              He was notorious for calling out often and it was usually hangover-related.

              1. sam*

                I don’t know why this is weird – vision loss is a common migraine symptom. Mine goes completely cockeyed – it’s usually one of the worst symptoms.

                I’m not gonna walk into a wall, but I can’t read or drive or do anything particularly functional. And a typical migraine for me lasts about a day.

                1. Lucille2*

                  I get similar symptoms from a migraine, but I know it’s a migraine and I’ll call it that when I call out from work. Calling out because you can’t see is a bit dramatic unless your manager is one who thinks a migraine is simply a nasty headache. I think too many people don’t realize how debilitating a migraine can be.

                2. AMPG*

                  Yes, but I imagine you’d call in explaining that your vision is messed up because of a migraine, not just that you suddenly can’t see without mentioning the cause.

                3. Dankar*

                  @Quacken Because a lot of people feel compelled to give a run-down of their symptoms when calling out with a migraine. As Lucille2 says, many people don’t seem to understand that migraine’s are not just bad headaches or “code for hungover,” as I’ve heard before.

                  Luckily, I’ve only had to leave early for a migraine once (mine hit around 4:30pm and typically go away by the next morning), but there’s no way I could have stayed at work. Sometimes I get “silent migraines,” which have all of the debilitating symptoms minus the pain. Try explaining that to an unsympathetic employer!

                4. sam*

                  Some people don’t even realize that they’re migraines – my mother *only* got vision loss symptoms – she eventually went to the eyedoctor thinking there was something specifically wrong with her eyes, and he was the one who figured out that they were migraines.

                  I’m the lucky one who gets ALL the symptoms. vision loss, nausea, headaches, the entire left side of my body going numb (seriously thought I was having a stroke the first time this happened)…the headache is the least of it.

                5. SignalLost*

                  Because it’s weird to put the onus of responding to your symptoms on a colleague. JUST saying “I can’t see, it’s cool” requires your colleague to invest emotions in you when you could also say “I can’t see, this happens sometimes, we’re not sure why, it’ll clear up by tomorrow.” The former will cause most people to be concerned and potentially upset; the latter addresses that by telling them they don’t need to. And if it’s a single symptom of a known problem, it certainly is attention-attention-seeking to name only a shocking symptom rather than a (non-gross) condition like a migraine.

              2. Percysowner*

                Weirdly enough, I actually had a case where I couldn’t see, that turned out to be a minor thing. It was on a weekend, so I didn’t have to call off work. Suddenly my eyesight started going black from the edges. I knew my husband would be home in an hour, so I figured he could take me to the hospital then, since I wasn’t sure I could find the phone to call 911. Then it went away. It scared the bejesus out of me. I got in to see my doctor immediately and after a lot of poking and prodding he diagnosed me as having “optical migraines” . Basically I was getting the optical symptoms that often precede the migraine but not getting the actual headache. He prescribed migraine medicine and told me to take it at the first sign of my vision greying out. The pills worked wonderfully and halted the problem, but also left me drowsy, so when it hit, I had to take a few hours off work. It was the weirdest thing ever because it was unpredictable. A couple of times I had to tell co-workers that I was going to clock out, because I wasn’t going to be able to see for a while.

                I’m sure your friend’s boss wasn’t having optical migraines, but it is a thing and quite a weird one at that.

              3. emmelemm*

                My mom called me one morning and said, “I can’t see”. Turned out she was having a stroke.

                (She’s fully recovered, fortunately.)

              4. Michaela Westen*

                I’ve had sinus headaches that made me unable to see or work. Only a couple of times, luckily! I could see to cross the room, but I couldn’t focus on something as small as typing on a computer.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Her reliability! I apologize—I didn’t mean to suggest that the employee is purposefully trying to make herself sick. I meant to agree with all aboard the anon train that people with food allergies often avoid allergens but can still become ill if their food is adulterated. If this is a medical problem, I strongly suspect the employee doesn’t know if she has an underlying GI problem (or food intolerance/allergy).

            Clearly the employee is not faking her symptoms, and speaking personally, I don’t think she’d intentionally try to make herself sick by overeating. I also don’t think OP should tell her to see a doctor. I like the script that HannahS provides, downthread, on how to have a productive but not overreaching conversation about whether to begin the iterative process for ADA accommodation.

        2. a girl named Bob*

          I was thinking maybe the next time it happened the supervisor could say something along the lines of, “This is the sixth time in the past three or four months you’ve had to miss work due to ‘eating too much’. That seems extremely excessive. If I were you I’d be talking to my doctor to see if there is something that can help to eliminate this problem.”

      3. hbc*

        Of course most people with food allergies aren’t eating those foods on purpose, just like most of us don’t eat until we’re incapacitated, knowingly eat foods that trigger migraines, purposefully eat gluten which celiac disease, or regularly exercise to the point of injury. But there are rare people who do all those things, and the point that Greg is making is that the underlying physical cause doesn’t excuse the bad choice, even if we can sympathize that it’s tough to refrain.

        It’s not “Someone who has to call out sick with an allergy was just being careless,” it’s “Someone who’s hitting a known trigger (to the point of missing work) five times in a quarter needs to take ownership and change something, whether it’s behavior, drugs, or an official accommodation.”

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          I’ve known a few people that are lactose intolerant that have on occasion thrown out their restraint and binged on ice cream, knowing that they would hurt the next day and not caring. This was all in collage, so the behavior didn’t seem that odd or different to them to drinking hard one night and having a hangover the next morning. But if they had gone off into the world and done it three times in five months that should have been a huge problem and they would have needed to stop that kind of behavior when they had to work the next day.

          1. Bunny Girl*

            Yeah that’s what I was thinking. I’m severely lactose intolerant with a mild dairy allergy and normally I follow a near vegan diet. However, every once in a while I will happily indulge in a couple slices of good pizza or a cheeseboard because cheese is delicious. I don’t do it however, when I have plans later because I know I’m not going to feel good. And I’d probably never chow down on a whole pizza on a Monday before I had to go to work. It would make me way too sick.

          2. Rat in the Sugar*

            Yeah, I’ve actually been this employee myself and I definitely agree. I have multiple food intolerances (including lactose!) as well as IBS and reflux. I used to have a bad habit of overdoing it on the weekend fairly often–like your story, I viewed it as an indulgence and just dealt with the consequences. Hell, I had awful indigestion everyday anyway, so who cares if it’s *extra* bad today? It’s always bad!

            However, I ended up calling out on Monday because of it several times in just a few months, and my boss said something to me about it. The script she used was very similar to the ones Alison often proposes, something like “You’ve been calling out during month-end too much, I need you to be here reliably”. I was really embarrassed but I appreciated that she didn’t ever specifically mention the reason for my call-outs, just that I needed to work on it. I’ve read other stories from commenters here saying that this kind of conversation made them feel like they were being reprimanded for having an illness, but I feel the way she addressed it avoided that.

            After that, I started watching what I ate on the weekends and now I call out for a flare-up maybe a few times a year, which is a more normal rate for me. I was nervous the next time I had to call out later that year, but there wasn’t a peep from boss besides “Okay, feel better”. I feel like she handled the whole thing really well.

          3. hayling*

            OMG I know SO MANY people who are Lactose Intolerant who do this. I am LI but it’s very well-controlled with Lactaid pills. I have dated several guys (and I married one, whoops) who will eat dairy even when it upsets their stomachs…and then it kinda ruins your time together because they’re in the bathroom for so long!

    2. AcademiaNut*

      Even more broadly, taking sick time to recuperate from deliberate behaviour is a bad habit to have. So that would include calling in sick because you are hungover, you went hiking and have extra sore muscles, you stayed up all night reading the new Harry Potter book, or you didn’t use sunscreen and have a bad sunburn. I think most people make a mistake like this once or twice, but it shouldn’t be your default approach.

      1. Ellen*

        I had my gall bladder removed. It took a really distressingly long time to figure out what I could eat after that change. Fat, in particular, can cause some pretty coworker distressing symptoms. I couldn’t miss work because I’d be fired, though. I did lose one job due to excessive bathroom breaks (I couldn’t go two hours, it was awful).

        1. krysb*

          I still can’t eat after having my gallbladder removed a couple of years ago – but this may be compounded by a potential autoimmune issue that my gastro doctor thinks I have, but a lot of it is definitely because of the gallbladder. I suffered for two years before going to my gastro, and now I’m on the only medicine that can help the issue (and it’s not cheap, and it’s disgusting), but at least I have 95% control over that part of my body.

        2. Jules the 3rd*

          +1

          This is what I came to say – it is totally possible that the employee has something going on and hasn’t been able to figure out the trigger or problem. She may even not be looking, if her family and experience has trained her that this is ‘normal’. Things like insufficient bile or lactose intolerance are common and fat / milk are hard to avoid; I thank goodness for ‘cheese pills’ (lactase tablets) every day.

          What the manager can do is signal, ‘this isn’t normal’ and discuss how to address it. Neither she nor we can diagnose the employee, but no one should dismiss the employee’s experience as ‘she should know better’.

          1. Doe-Eyed*

            +1 to this

            As someone who works in GI if she has a functional disorder like IBS there’s likely not even a way to reliably identify the “trigger”. Different things will cause different reactions at different times. In fact we encourage people not to try to map responses to triggers in some cases because it ends up making them slowly cut out every single thing they eat and makes their stomach more and more sensitive.

          2. Observer*

            The issue here is that the employee is doing something that she seems to know will cause problems even if she doesn’t know why. Now, it’s possible that she doesn’t actually realize that it’s so predictable, but that’s a bit unlikely. The truth is that it’s also pretty irrelevant. She needs to be in more regularly, or she needs to arrange an accommodation, which would also enable the employer to work with the situation.

            1. designbot*

              It’s possible it’s entirely unpredictable to her. After some issues a couple years ago I found that I couldn’t eat pineapple, watermelon, mango, or too much red onion. It took several bad turns to even identify that those foods were causing my issues, and it took talking to a nutritionist to understand why/what the connecting thread was and how to look out for other foods that fit the same pattern.

        3. Alton*

          Yeah, sometimes it can be hard to figure out the right balance when it’s not an obvious intolerance to a specific food.

          I have an issue where if I eat too much too soon after waking up, or eat something too high in sugar or fat, I sometimes get really bad abdominal pains. “Too much” in this context can mean anything heavier than a yogurt or bowl of cereal. I’ve learned to anticipate that, and fortunately, with my current job I’m able to schedule my meals so that it’s not an issue. It’s still a concern if, say, I’m going on a trip where I won’t have access to food for a while and I want to eat before leaving the house.

          It’s impossible to say what the OP’s employee’s problem is, exactly, or if it’s something that’s easily avoidable. The employee might not even know. The good thing about approaching it from the standpoint of being willing to offer medical accommodations is that if it’s not something she can easily avoid, a doctor may be able to provide documentation to that effect.

        4. Squid*

          I had the same problem before having my gallbladder removed, actually! I was intensely nauseated after almost everything I ate and couldn’t identify any specific triggers. Since I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, explanations like “I ate too much” were the best language I could think of to capture what was happening when I was too sick to work. So while it’s possible that the employee in question is knowingly eating in a way that doesn’t work for them, it’s also very possible that there’s a real (and potentially undiagnosed) medical issue that they just don’t have the right words for.

          1. Lynn Marie*

            Yes, this is exactly right. I’m dealing with reflux that manifests in debilitating coughing fits and I can’t always predict when I’m going to have a problem. Sometimes it hits immediately after eating; sometimes it’s several hours. Sometimes what I eat and the amount would have been be fine, if I hadn’t eaten something problematic the previous day. So it’s difficult to establish a pattern. With food tracking, carefully monitoring my intake, and stopping eating well before I feel full, I have few episodes now. But it took a year or so to figure it all out, and sometimes I just eat normally without thinking about it and then I have problems. It’s easier to tell people “Oh, I just ate too much,” which is basically true if incomplete, than going into the full explanation and watching their eyes glaze over.

        5. Sparklehorse*

          Oh man, don’t ask me how I learned I can’t eat cheesecake any more after my gallbladder removal. That was not a fun night.

        6. TrainerGirl*

          This has been my experience as well. I had my gallbladder removed at 24. It’s been a struggle to figure out what I can eat without GI distress. And there’s no consistency.

      2. Foreign Octopus*

        Your point about deliberate behaviour reminds me of a letter where the manager was in kind of the same position as the OP wherein one of their staff members took a sick day before her scheduled holiday because she’d accidentally misjudged her training regime for a marathon. I remember in that letter the OP requested a sick note and was wondering what to do because it wasn’t quite a traditional sick day but it wasn’t intentional either.

      3. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        Yes – exactly. All of those examples would be super problematic if they happened five times in three months. Also I so miss there being new Harry Potter books so you could stay up all night reading them. *sigh*

        1. JaneB*

          There are plenty of other books that cause accidental can’t-stop-reading-staying-up-all-night. Topic for tomorrow’s weekend thread?

        2. Oranges*

          I was and still am horrible about this. I must know how the book ends before I can sleep. Must. I will get insomnia if I don’t (I’ve tried).

          Thank gods for Kindle’s time estimate since I now know exactly how long it’ll take me to read a book and can chunk out 2-6 hours for it (I read incredibly fast). I now no longer make the mistake of starting a book that I can’t finish before I need to go to bed.

          1. FoxyDog*

            I’m the same way – it’s so hard to put an exciting book down. I’ve taken to reading reddit before bed instead. Or shoot for a less exciting nonfiction book.

      4. Allison*

        I think that if you’re not feeling well enough to work, you should take a sick day regardless of the reason. They’re your sick days to use as you wish, although it’s also your responsibility to make sure you don’t run out toward the end of the year when cold/flu season comes around. That said, you’re correct in that you shouldn’t deliberately do things you know will put you out of commission, and just plan on using a sick day for it, especially if your coworkers really count on you on a day-to-day basis and your absence will throw everything out of whack.

        1. Isabel Kunkle*

          This. If you have X sick days, and you’re using X sick days, I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t have to say more than “I’m using a sick day today, I’ll be in tomorrow,” *unless* it’s something where, as you say, your absence on Day X will mess everything up for your co-workers. Infinite sick time, paid or unpaid, seems different.

      5. Civilian Linetti*

        I actually did stay up all night reading a new Harry Potter book after picking it up at the midnight launch! I also had a work shift that started at 6 the next day. I owned my choices and went to work, powered through my shift and had an afternoon nap when I finished work (it was a 6-12 shift in a supermarket, so nothing high powered that I needed to be top of my game at,) I was not the only bleary-eyed person that day, I served several customers who were all in the same boat.

        I definitely would not have called in sick for a self-inflicted decision.

    3. WS*

      Working in healthcare, I see a lot of people who put repeated problems down to their behaviour (ate too much, exercised too hard) and later end up with an actual diagnosis, whether it be IBS or allergies or a recurrent injury that needs treatment. It really is a common stage in many chronic conditions, so letting the employee know how it is affecting their employment might be the push it takes to get them to the doctor.

      1. peachie*

        This makes a lot of sense to me. I agree that it is a problem, but the problem is the “missing more work than is acceptable” part, not the “I ate too much” part. Hopefully, once the employee gets serious feedback, they can pursue treatment and/or ask for a medical accommodation at work.

      2. Jam Today*

        I was thinking this same thing. I know two women who had years of inexplicable debilitating symptoms (one had recurrent GI issues for two decades, the other repeated hypotensive events causing her to pass out at random including in the shower where she whacked her head off the edge of her bathroom sink on the way down) only to find out in their late 30s they had the same autoimmune disorder (celiac). Getting an accurate diagnosis — especially for women — can take years.

        1. Jenna Maroney*

          Especially because we’re often treated as being overly sensitive or hysterical when we bring up the issues to our doctors. Sometimes we try to get help and aren’t believed.

        2. Collarbone High*

          Yes, some people are underestimating how difficult it can be to get a diagnosis. It’s entirely possible Stacia *has* been trying to figure out what’s wrong with no success.

          I spent six years going to various doctors with symptoms just like Stacia’s, and got answers ranging from “you just need to handle stress better” to “lactose intolerance” to “bulimia.” I missed a lot of work, and performed at a low level because I was in pain every time I ate. The actual problem was multiple bowel strictures from Crohn’s disease, and any amount of food was “overeating.” But you can’t get that diagnosis unless a doctor who doesn’t think it’s “all in your head” orders the right tests. It’s pretty callous to assume Stacia is just “careless” and causing her own problems.

            1. Collarbone High*

              I think it would be helpful for the LW to suggest, as Jules the 3rd said, that this sounds more serious than just a reaction to overeating. Now that I think about it, “you probably just ate too much” sounds a lot like what an exasperated parent, or a clinician trying to avoid costly tests, might say, and there’s a lot of pressure to minimize problems and not inconvenience other people with them. A different perspective, and permission to think of this as a potential problem, might help.

              This is just my experience, but my life would gone a lot easier if someone had said to me, “that sounds like Crohn’s or colitis, not stress, has your doctor referred you to a GI?”, because then I could have researched those diseases and insisted on a referral. I’m concerned about Stacia’s health — if she’s regularly vomiting and having diarrhea, she’s probably dehydrated, and if she does have a condition like IBD it’s going to get worse if left untreated.

          1. Rat in the Sugar*

            I don’t know that it’s really assuming to say that that Stacia is causing her own problems when that’s literally what Stacia herself said she was doing.

            I do agree with you that there’s a good chance she actually has an underlying condition and isn’t overeating at all, but I don’t think people are being callous by believing what she says about herself.

        3. WS*

          Oh, I’m not saying it’s easy to get a diagnosis – I had thyroid cancer and severe hypothyroidism go undiagnosed for 18 months because obviously I was just fat! – so the sooner you start investigating the better.

        4. lawyer*

          Wait, are hypotension and celiac associated? I have serious problems with hypotension that no one has been able to solve.

      3. Seriously?*

        She may already know she has a chronic condition but feels uncomfortable disclosing and so goes with “ate too much” rather than “I’m having trouble figuring out how much I can eat at a time without getting sick since having my gallbladder removed” or something similar.

    4. Annie*

      Honestly it sounds like Stacia is dealing with some kind of chronic medical condition and is simply downplaying it to preserve her medical privacy.

      1. Jenna Maroney*

        I agree, I wonder if she’s young/undiagnosed/recently diagnosed, that could potentially explain why she’s going about it this way. Lack of experience to know how to handle this the best way she can.

        1. OP3*

          OP3 here. Stacia is young and my best guess is that if there’s an underlying issue medically, she’s unaware of it. Part of why I wrote in was that if it were me having these sorts of symptoms that frequently, I’d be rather alarmed about it and I know that there are a number of conditions that could cause that, some of which might be very serious.

          On the other hand…and this is awkward even to type as this is really none of my business and would be very inappropriate to point out…she does eat quite a lot, often eating two full large takeout containers of food on her lunch break, after which she often ends up on one of those half hour bathroom breaks. I understand that this too can be part of a disorder but parsing that is WAY above my pay grade and not my place which was part of why I was at a bit of a loss for exactly how to address this.

          I think Alison’s script will be a helpful and appropriate way to frame the conversation.

      2. EddieSherbert*

        That seems likely to me well… but in this case she’s downplaying it *too much* and making it sound frivolous. I’m glad the OP has considered it could be a medical situation and I hope they take Alison’s advice!

        1. Susan*

          Yes – the “oh, this is normal” is the problem. OP probably should let the worker know how it is appearing.

      3. Nita*

        Could be. Years ago I nearly passed out in front of my boss and a few other big shots. The reason was so embarrassing to me that in the moment, I couldn’t think of anything better than claiming I forgot to eat breakfast before the meeting. Which made me look kind of stupid and irresponsible. In hindsight, I could have just said that I’m not feeling well, and left it at that, but somehow it didn’t occur to me. Maybe it was because this was also a recurrent problem, and I figured that if people saw me ill often enough they’d ask what’s wrong, and I’ll need to come up with some sort of explanation…

        I didn’t realize until reading AAM for a while that it doesn’t sound that odd to just say “I’m dealing with a medical condition” and not say what it is.

        1. Ego Chamber*

          I didn’t realize until reading AAM for a while that it doesn’t sound that odd to just say “I’m dealing with a medical condition” and not say what it is.

          I was schooled on this by a bitchy CSR when I called in to my employer’s sick line. I said I’d be out that day, she asked why, I gave a short list of symptoms, she said very slowly, in a tone that communicated she thought I was a complete idiot for answering the question she’d asked in a different way than she wanted, “So you’re sick and won’t be in today…” (I swear I could hear here eyes rolling).

          Could’ve done without the sass, but it was good information, and I’m upset with every fast food and retail manager I’ve ever had who insisted on analyzing symptoms before they’d accept a call-out—all places where sick time is unpaid ffs.

    5. Temperance*

      My SIL has celiac disease, and when she gets glutened, she’s down for at least a day, usually more. It’s not ever her fault, either.

    6. Jon*

      It definitely sounds like it could be an eating disorder like binge eating. We could easily say “behavior within someone’s control” but these types of disorders are overpowering.

      1. Max*

        Yes, my thoughts went more to the eating disorder/mental health issue side of things. Of course that doesn’t excuse the frequency of the absences but I do think it’s more akin to the “waking up with a hangover” situation except for someone who is an alcoholic and doesn’t have the tools to avoid engaging in the harmful behavior.

  3. Sami*

    OP 1 — I’ve been a union member and on our contract negotiation team. It’s difficult to get others to understand the particular kind of stress involved. Perhaps there is someone who would be able to step in for you in bargaining so you’re not leaving your fellow union members in the lurch. Good luck!

  4. Greg NY*

    #4: If Alison’s comments are true, it means that it is effectively impossible for someone older than approximately 40 to get back into the game. If you ideally need to stay at a job for 3 years and it takes 5 jobs to get to the pinnacle of your career (IMO, a pretty accurate number), that person would be 55, when age discrimination often kicks in, preventing further advancement. As it is, it would be at least a 15 year process for anyone in the LW’s position, and that’s assuming advancements can happen every 3 years. As you go up the ladder, it often takes longer.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think Greg NY’s calculations are exactly correct (for one thing you don’t need to stay at every job three years, especially as you begin to rebuild a work history), but yeah, it’s definitely true that if your entire work history from age ~20-40 is spotty and littered with firings and no references, it’s going to be hard to get more selective employers to hire you without putting some real time and effort into constructing a work history that can act as a counterweight to that. I can’t tell if you’re taking issue with it working that way (or just with my advice to the OP? or something else?) but it doesn’t mean the OP can’t find work. It means they’re going to have much more limited options, and if they want to change that, they’ll need to do the sorts of things I talked about in the answer. Are you arguing it should work differently, that employers should choose to hire someone with the OP’s work history over someone with years of solid, reliable work and good references? If so, what’s your thinking about why it would make sense for them to do that?

        1. workbee*

          no issue with your advice, it makes sense in the system we live in. More objection to the fact that we live in a system where someone who had an undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or mismanaged disability is essentially condemned to spend several more years of their life in miserable jobs to make up for something that was no fault of their own

          1. Gaia*

            Workbee, isn’t that less the fault of the employer (both past and future) and more the fault of the medical teams that didn’t help the OP, though?

            As someone who was a hiring manager, I feel for the OP but I needed to hire people that I had reason to believe could do that job. And that meant people with solid evidence that they’d previously been successful at doing the job. Might the OP of been great? Sure. But that’s a really big risk to take and it doesn’t always make sense to do so. That isn’t “capitalism sucks” that is “our healthcare system failed his person yet again”

            1. Half-Caf Latte*

              In the US, access to quality medical care is largely influenced by the employer, through the provision of health insurance.

              So yeah, some blame at the previous employers might not be misplaced.

              1. CRM*

                I’m not sure. Are you saying that the previous employers should have kept a low performing person around so that they have health insurance, just in case their lackluster performance is due to a medical issue? If OP clearly stated that this was the case and that they were actively seeking treatment, then the employer would have some responsibility to try and make accommodations. Otherwise, it’s not the employer’s place to assess this.

                Furthermore, on this blog alone we have seen plenty of instances of low-performing employees who were just careless and/or entitled, so it’s hard to say “this employee is slacking, they probably have a serious underlying medical condition” when more often than not that isn’t the case.

                1. Thursday Next*

                  Perhaps what Half-Caf is saying is that a system of universal healthcare could have enabled diagnosis and ongoing treatment independent of employment, and that’s usually a better setup for coming up with management strategies than one in which your care is tied to your job, and breaks in employment disrupt care.

                  Half-Caf, if you’re not saying this, my apologies. But I fully believe in decoupling access to healthcare from employment.

                2. CRM*

                  Thursday Next, I completely agree with you. I was more responding to Half-Caf’s claim that “blame on the previous employer might not be misplaced”, where I don’t see how the employer should be faulted.

                3. Jessen*

                  I think it’s also an issue that “having health insurance” isn’t a guarantee that you actually have access to decent healthcare. Working where I do, I see a lot of people who have insurance but can’t afford their deductible or copay, or who have coverage denied by the insurance company. There’s only one option here that just barely meets the legal minimum, but since it does employees are ineligible for aid, even though the deductible and the percentage billed to the employee are out of reach for many workers.

                  Unfortunately it’s very hard to get into a a job that has good health coverage without several years of work and a good reference – the expectation seems to be rather more that you earn a job with good benefits by spending a few years with terrible ones.

            2. Emily K*

              I look at it as, “Capitalism is inadequate.” Capitalism does some things very well. It’s good at efficiently allocating resources. One thing it does not do at all is ensuring that every person meets a minimum standard of living. Capitalism has lifted a lot of people out of poverty, but it will never eliminate poverty because its own logic requires a permanent underclass. A realistic embrace of capitalism for its benefits would be one that acknowledges its inherent flaws and sets up parallel social structures to ensure the well-being of people relegated to capitalism’s underclass.

              1. OlympiasEpiriot*

                I disagree that it is “good at efficiently allocating resources”; because, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have the kind of inequality of access to resources of all kinds that we do.

                But, this is not the place for this discussion…probably best to leave it for one of the open threads.

          2. JamieS*

            You object but how can that be changed? Regardless of the reason for a spotty job history it doesn’t really make sense to expect a company to hire someone who can’t demonstrate any sort of solid work ethic, history of results, or anything else an employer may look for in an employee.

              1. JamieS*

                Barring some kind of revolution/government coup that’s realistically not going to happen so the question still stands.

                1. JamieS*

                  No it’s not. Workbee objected to OP’s situation and I posed the question of what can be done which isn’t derailing.

                2. aebhel*

                  There are a lot of ways to implement a more robust social support system for people who are disabled or otherwise struggling to survive without overthrowing the current system of government. It’s not either ‘change nothing’ or ‘destroy the system entirely’; there’s a large middle ground in there. And I suspect that accessible and affordable health care would have done a lot to alleviate the OP’s situation; most people don’t fail to manage chronic conditions just for the fun of it–there’s an issue of access and affordability. One of the big problems with our current system is that the quality of a person’s health insurance is inextricably tied to their employment, which makes it really hard to manage when you’re too sick to work reliably.

                3. Abyssal*

                  I’m with Aebhel.

                  I can say for certain that if the US medical system worked in a different, more user-friendly way, I would be a more productive employee. There is medication I could be taking but choose not to because of cost and access issues. It would provide a major lift to my ability to work, and many of the work difficulties I’ve experienced have tied into the medical issue it would address. But as it stands, I would rather not take it at all than start taking it and experience periods of withdrawal when I’m inevitably unable to get it consistently.

                4. JamieS*

                  aebhel Alison specifically said “universal basic income or a non-capitalist system”. Neither of those things are realistic barring some major change that completely changes the playing field.

                5. Blue Anne*

                  Major changes that completely change the playing field happen pretty routinely.

                  I’d love to see universal basic income and an American NHS, personally.

                6. aebhel*

                  @JamieS, I was responding to your initial comment. ‘How can that be changed’ is a question with actual, actionable answers, not the rhetorical shrug that you apparently intended it as.

                7. Tabby*

                  Everyone on this thread is free to move to the country of their choice if America is no longer working out for you. I’m sure Africa has great health benefits

                8. Gazebo Slayer*

                  @Tabby – oh yay, the “MURICA LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” trash, because God forbid anyone try to make their own country better and fairer for everyone.

                  You are, of course, free to leave this website if you don’t like the discussion. (See? Two can play at that little silencing game.)

                9. Ego Chamber*

                  @Tabby Are… are you going to Venmo me the funds to cover that move out of country? And the visa costs to become nationalized elsewhere? And other associated costs?

                  I can’t afford to pay for it myself, since I’m underemployed due to a chronic illness that I can’t afford to manage correctly without full-time employment that I can’t find because of my poorly-managed chronic illness.

                  (Your implication that Africa doesn’t have health benefits is a little bit racist and a lot ignorant. And Africa is not a country.)

                10. aebhel*

                  @Tabby, it’s obnoxious and disingenuous to suggest that anyone who wants to change anything whatsoever about the country they live in should just leave.

                  As it happens, I’m an able-bodied middle-class white woman with good health insurance, so America is working out just fine for me. That doesn’t prevent me from empathizing with the people for whom it is not working out, and for trying to find ways to make it better. I’m just sorry that you don’t seem capable of mustering any empathy for people in this country who are struggling.

                  Also, that ‘Africa’ crack was a nice, classy touch. I’m done here, I think.

                11. Â*

                  @Tabby – I am American and have had the good fortune to travel in Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda. I was ASTOUNDED by how much better, faster, and cheaper the healthcare services were when I needed them. And BOY did I need them.

                  I honestly didn’t know it could be so good or so easy… and I come from a family of medical professionals so I’ve had a lot of insider info and extra advantages using the US health system. Honestly, our healthcare system sucks. We should take a lesson from the countries who are doing it better. And there are a LOT of them. Yes, *even in Africa* – gasp. Shocking, I know.

                12. SimonTheGreyWarden*

                  @A — but the browner people can’t have health insurance better than those of us in MURRICA FCUK YEAH! How dare you say the country of Africa (yes. the country. wtactualf) has better health care than THE LAND OF THE FREE AND HOME OF THE SELFISH?

            1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

              There are systems where companies can get incentives to hire, for example, people who have been unemployed for a longer time. It can make more sense to hire someone with a spotty work history if the state pays half of it. Of course for more demanding expert jobs companies still choose the one they believe is best, but for entry-level stuff it’s possible to create a system where long-time unemployed people, people with medical problems etc. have a better chance.

          3. (still) anon for this*

            I mentioned on an open thread a few weeks ago that I might be forced to transition off disability and your comment is basically the summation of my fear. For me, being ‘condemned to spend several more years of their life in miserable jobs to make up for something that was no fault of their own’ seems like a death sentence. But, as someone said down below, ‘them’s the breaks’.

            1. Emily K*

              I do think it’s possible, also, for people with spotty job histories to find less desirable jobs that aren’t outright miserable. I’ve worked some jobs that were low-paid, long hours on my feet, and it’s definitely not something I would do again by choice if I had other options. But in a lot of them I liked my bosses and coworkers, and the work wasn’t terrible, especially with the right attitude (in a call center, the mantra is, “that guy’s anger isn’t about me and I am in control and can terminate the call;” in a delivery driver gig it was, “you’re never going to get tips from everyone, so don’t stew on it when you get stiffed.”).

              1. Kay*

                I appreciate this comment a lot! I’ve also worked low-paying jobs that turned out to be not bad at all. I don’t mind some light physical labor or repetitive tasks, especially when my coworkers are mostly pretty great and we chat a lot. I’ve seen people at those jobs for so many reasons (artists with a day job, younger people, grad students, half retired people, people doing it full time, etc) so it’s often not a strict choice between a cushy office job and a completely hellhole.

              2. Rebecca*

                Thank you for this comment. Not all entry level jobs are terrible. I actually enjoy retail work quite a bit; it’s always been my coworkers in that field that make or break a job for me.

                1. Starbuck*

                  One of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had was working in a Subway in a college cafeteria- it was well-run, management was understanding of student schedules (your shifts would be set for the quarter, so no worries about conflicts with classes) they kept staffing high enough that it wasn’t a crisis when people inevitably flaked out, and if you were reliable you got first pick of shifts, more hours, and promotions that came with substantial ($1/hr) raises. Also the tasks were consistent and I loved being able to let my mind wander wherever it wanted to go during prep shifts. Oh, and the free sandwiches.

              3. Little Bean*

                This is a great comment. I loved my first job working in the stock room of a department store. It was pretty mindless repetitive work but I got to listen to whatever music I wanted and I was good friends with my coworkers. I just focused on taking satisfaction in doing my job as best as I could.

              4. Can't hold on to a job!*

                I think the challenge really occurs when people’s disability precludes them from doing repetitive and/or physical tasks that are characteristic of entry-level jobs. For instance, I have a motor coordination disorder and a learning disability. For me, this caused me to get fired/be forced to resign from cashier, food preparation, administrative assistant, file clerk, and HR assistant jobs. I am able to handle higher-level jobs with more discretion in the way duties are completed. For instance, at the HR assistant position, I excelled at the limited recruiting tasks I was given. But because my role was as HR assistant (pre-requisite for the recruiting coordinator job), I really struggled. I have ADHD and the “simple” task of making copies was much more difficult for me than if they had given me a task such as interviewing candidates or writing job descriptions. I got a Bachelor’s degree but have struggled to maintain employment, bouncing from entry level job to entry level job in my field. I think a major shortcoming for many disability employment programs is that they typically consist of hard-to-fill, repetitive positions. They are presumed to be an “easy” way to get and stay employed. But for people with certain disabilities, these sort of jobs are not compatible at all with their specific impairments. I participated in a disability job placement program, and was matched with a file clerk position. The intention of these programs is good – let’s get people with disabilities through the door in a role that consists of repetitive tasks that are limited in complexity that they “should” be able to handle- but for some disabilities, tasks that involve higher-order thinking are actually easier.If I can ever climb the ladder, there are positions that will be more suitable for my strengths. At that point, I will be able to delegate tasks that are more difficult for me like organizing files or data entry to administrative assistants. The problem is that it will be difficult for me to obtain them with such a spotty history. If I can’t perform at entry-level jobs, it may appear to employers that I can’t handle more complex tasks. How do people like me build a consistent job history if we can’t keep entry-level jobs?

            2. Washi*

              To me the sad thing is not that someone might have to spend some years working in a job that is not their passion or very high-paying, but that so many jobs are so miserable and shitty. I would say that not only is better healthcare important so people can get the medical help they need, but also better labor protections and regulations so that employees are not so completely taken advantage of by their employers. If you have very little education and work experience, retail or call centers may be exactly what you are currently qualified for, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to be miserable in those jobs. It wouldn’t be so bad to start at the bottom if even there, you had a living wage, health insurance, benefits, good management, and reliable hours.

              1. Gazebo Slayer*

                This, this, this a million times! No matter how non-prestigious your job, you do not deserve to be abused in it and you should have healthcare that won’t bankrupt you and a decent place to live!

                Every society needs people to do the unglamorous stuff. Saying “just get more education!!” Or “just work harder and BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and you’ll get promoted!!” is pointless on a societal level, because if the people who are currently in those jobs move on someone else will just take their place. We need to treat EVERYONE with decency.

                1. Princess Loopy*

                  Exactly yes. I see so many people (most of whom have–relatively, at least–“good” jobs) basically celebrating the godawful work conditions at lower-skill, entry-level jobs. Because people who need to take those jobs a) deserved to be in a miserable situation for not having a better work history/more skills and b) need the motivation of terrible working environments to better themselves.

                  The former point is a terrible attitude toward the lower-skill work and workers and that all of us rely on for our goods and services (even excepting the fact that there are PLENTY of skills involved in doing almost all of those jobs well) and the latter is not at all how motivation works.

                  I strongly wish we treated our workforce as a whole better than we do.

                2. aebhel*

                  This! Honestly one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had was as a housekeeper. It was backbreaking work and it didn’t pay very well, but I could turn the TV on or listen to music while I cleaned, I didn’t have to socialize or think about work when I was done with it, and most importantly, I was treated decently and given benefits and supported by management. Even in the current system, it just isn’t that hard to create an environment for ‘drudge’ work that isn’t awful and abusive.

                  There are low-wage jobs out there that treat their employees well; it’s worth being a little picky about workplace conditions if you can afford to.

              2. all the candycorn*

                Also, so many entry-level low paying jobs are “miserable and shitty” in a way that specifically harms persons with disabilities, because they are butts-in-seats front-line-staff sorts of jobs where you cannot call out without securing coverage, get a regular schedule to work in proper rest/doctor’s appointments/self-care, or have regular breaks to use the restroom/take medicine/follow a special restricted diet.

                Someone with a salaried office job can get accommodations in a way a cashier cannot.

                1. Amethystmoon*

                  Even people in hourly office jobs cannot always get accommodations. My particular job is one where you have to be there, and have to make sure there is a co-worker to cover you if you take PTO. You can take reasonable lunch and bathroom breaks, but people who go beyond that are gossiped about.

              3. WorkBee*

                yes, exactly. I suppose Alison’s initial advice would seem a lot less hopeless if we lived in a society that treated workers at all levels with actual respect and human dignity. I suppose that’s probably the reason I’ve always taken issue with the whole ‘a job can just be a paycheck to you’ line – it makes sense in theory but when you have to work 60+ hours at a job that makes you miserable, it’s a difficult midset to try to keep

              4. Jessen*

                I’d also say unfortunately, those are the sorts of jobs most likely to take an attitude about accommodations. I’ve dealt with a fair number of people who felt accommodations were an imposition, and it wasn’t uncommon for employees working retail who took FMLA or needed accommodations to suddenly develop “performance problems.” This is of course completely illegal, but they were counting on people not having the money and/or energy to fight it.

            3. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

              Or you and the OP could view this as an opportunity to gain (regain) skills, ease your way into more demanding positions, and restart your career perhaps even going in a new and different direction. (I mean, hey if you have to start over anyway, maybe it’s a good opportunity to start in a different direction if that’s a want).

              If you (global you) go into a situation with a miserable outlook, chances are you’re going to be miserable. People start over careers for a myriad of different reasons; burnout, loss of interest, bad fits, to follow their dreams, changing life circumstances (relocations, family changes, etc.). Yes it’s tougher for people with a less than rock solid work history, but it doesn’t mean that it’s easy for anyone.

              I’m not saying this to blow sunshine and rainbows, but to offer a different perspective.

              1. Jenna Maroney*

                That takes time and money, which generally aren’t things you have in abundance if you’re in the financial/medical position OP4 is in.

                1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

                  What takes time or money? You’re thinking I’m suggesting a degree? Nope, don’t need a degree to do this.

                  Could be as others have mentioned; Apprenticing, starting at an entry level position in a new field, finding a company/field willing to train, taking a not so great job at a company who offers tuition reimbursement.

                  There aren’t any easy answers, but there are paths that those starting over can take to minimize the pain.

              1. Snark*

                That’s a refererence to one of the commenting rules, which is not to shut down reasonably actionable advice based on edge cases, not a reference to unequal wealth distribution or whatever.

              2. Jenna Maroney*

                Cool. I’ve seen it happen here several times when someone is in trouble and are getting solutions that don’t work. Eventually the person just throws their hands up and parrots the sandwich rule bc that’s easier than acknowledging that the system screws over & traps people.

            4. Observer*

              Well, it doesn’t have to be miserable jobs. Hopefully you can get jobs that are less desirable because of pay, schedule or similar things, without those being miserable.

            5. :-)*

              I mentioned on an open thread a few weeks ago that I might be forced to transition off disability and your comment is basically the summation of my fear.

              This is my fear as well. I do live in Europe, but people are getting harder and harder and the benefits I am getting barely keep me a roof over my head. But I have never worked (besides the babysitting jobs I did as a teenager – I am halfway my 30s now)

              But I started doing volunteer-work since a few months. It’s only 3,5h during a week so far (admin for a ngo/doctor practice for people with a very low income). So in a way, I am building up my resume a bit. Which might help me get that perfect job for me (that I haven’t found so far, but I won’t give up ;) )

          4. Jenna Maroney*

            Yeah seriously, I comment less on this blog now bc sometimes the only response people give when you’re in a shitty position due to capitalist policies is “oh well, not my problem, not everyone can have sandwiches!!!” Like…. we’re discussing people’s livelihoods. Maybe a bit more compassion and thought is in order?

            1. Snark*

              Compassion and thought doesn’t change the basic reality that we live in a shitty capitalist system or provide actionable advice for surviving it! Yes, it sucks, but does this column provide advice, or emotional validation?

              Also, you’re completely misconstruing the “sandwiches” thing. Read the comment rules.

                1. Snark*

                  Then what is your point? That we do need to aggressively shoot down suggestions because we can imagine some possible edge case where following it is insufficiently woke?

              1. Falling Diphthong*

                I feel strongly that the point of Alison’s blog is to provide practical advice you can use in your current reality–no time travel, no alternate universe, not even moving to a different continent and becoming a citizen of a different country. Like the vocational therapy recommendation downthread.

                My parents recently got hit by a scam where the number you call back is a pay-by-the-minute number in Jamaica. AARP’s article about this scam, with their advice to google area codes, was more useful that a thousand and one diatribes about “stealing is bad” “targeting the sick and elderly is bad” “scams are bad.”

              1. Jenna Maroney*

                You’re misunderstanding my point. I’m talking about how your commenters interpret the rule, not what you meant by making it. Yes, some of your commenters are that lacking in empathy.

          5. Alton*

            Plus, when it comes to things like disabilities, the jobs that have the lowest barrier to entry are sometimes the least accommodating.

            Retail can be really bad about requiring people to stand in place for hours even if it’s not essential to the job, for example, and requiring a level of physical activity that might be hard for some people. My mom was so thankful when she started collecting social security because she has a health condition that causes lightheadedness if she can’t sit down periodically, and her job made that difficult.

        2. Jenna Maroney*

          It’s frustrating that the best solution to the problem you’ve raised in this comment is “a greater understanding of mental illness in the workplace/world.” How do you even begin to tackle a giant like that??? (This isn’t a criticism of what you said)

          1. Has food intolerance that feels like this*

            This is why I’ve started attending the monthly meetings of the local committee of the political group I support (probably obvious which group but I am not sure if naming names is allowed). Things like this will not be tackled as long as the people in power are career politicians who care more about the glory and the people who are aware of issues don’t participate because they’re understandably unwilling to socialize with career politicians.

        3. Theory of Eeveelution*

          I actually think that if you’re under 40, the world simply doesn’t work like this anymore, for better and for worse. What OP4 actually should do is use the next 2 years to learn something techy (or technical) on the side, and jump from the low-paying job to a Junior position. Front-end web development would be a good choice. There are a multitude of free resources online to teach you this. OP can then start making websites for friends, jump to making websites for local businesses, and then use that experience to move into the Junior position. OP can totally flood out the short-term positions and firings with freelance web design (or whatever else) work.

          I say this because I’m over 30, and just did this. Once you’re over 30, “Spend 3 years at one crappy position, then another 3 years at a somewhat less crappy position, and then another 3 years at another somewhat less crappy position” is just not good advice, if you ever want to have money to live. It just doesn’t reflect the world we live in anymore. I would know – my 20s were littered with short-term and unpaid positions (not because I was dealing with a disability, but more because I graduated college in 2008 and there was no work to be found in my field, or any other field, really). I spent the last 1.5 years working a low-paying job I hated, but working on technical skills on the side, and ended up recently getting a pretty great job in that field.

          1. Princess Loopy*

            OP, if you decide to take this route and get your technical training through a local college or community college, consider looking into their co-op program if they have one. Co-op (especially in tech fields, but in plenty of others as well) can be a way to work while you’re training at wages well above minimum. For example, in the co-op program at the community college where I worked, we had some advanced manufacturing co-op positions go as high as $21 an hour.

            This might allow you to build your resume and your network while you get training and certifications, which might then let you start in a higher position or at least higher pay when your training is complete. For high demand fields in my area, WIOA funding will sometimes cover all or part of the training cost.

            Just some options to consider!

      2. Yada Yada Yada*

        Seconding what Alison said. I don’t think it’s shocking that someone who has decades of short, spotty work history would have trouble landing a competitive job. Why is this surprising?

        1. Gaia*

          I’m genuinely curious why you feel this way, though? I feel for the OP and I wish they had received the help they needed much sooner but this idea that we should live in a world where employers don’t consider past experience? I just don’t get that. And, for what it is worth, I had a pretty long string of really spotty history myself. It sucked digging out of it. But I understand why I had to do so.

          1. PICNIC*

            I don’t think it’s the hiring aspect that is being seen as shitty, rather the lack of medical treatment and support that causes someone to get into that pattern in the first place.

          2. spock*

            Ideally, medical care would be easier and cheaper for everyone to access and OP wouldn’t be in this situation; and getting a job in retail or a call center wouldn’t be a terrible fate of “not really being in the workforce” but allow one to have a decent standard of living and retire at a reasonable age.

          3. Falling Diphthong*

            I feel for OP, but “My work history is terrible, but it’s for reasons outside my control and I would be a great employee now” is going to be greeted with skepticism when it’s an unsupported test run of the concept. The way around that is a sustained pattern of it not being true; the entry to that pattern is to take jobs looking for warm bodies. Or exactly the sort of nepotism hire that grinds people’s gears, because the right connections trumped a pile of negatives.

            And I don’t see the point of using an advice blog to bemoan how things could be different in a different system, because people need advice that applies to them now, where they are.

          4. Jenna Maroney*

            Have you ever been in a position when you’re seriously suffering, either financially or emotionally, as a result of these kinds of decisions? If no, I would respectfully say that you don’t have a full understanding of how *awful* someone’s life can be if they get stuck in this pattern.

          5. aebhel*

            I don’t think we should live in a world where employers don’t consider past work history, but I do wish we could live in a world where it’s possible for people who can’t work (or can’t work reliably or full-time) don’t struggle to survive.

            1. Alton*

              Exactly. The system as it exists now places private employers in the position of being responsible for people’s survival, which I think conflicts with the concept of companies being allowed to focus on their own best interests.

              This has been the most difficult thing for me to deal with since I started my career. I used to be very underemployed. Paying for healthcare was a major concern. I had few references and little experience, so finding a better job was hard. Now I have a job I like, with good benefits. I have great health insurance. I have a decent cushion in savings. I have a retirement fund. And I’ve never felt more vulnerable! I feel like my options are very limited. I’m scared about what would happen if I ever lost my job. I’m scared to change jobs, lest I end up in a more vulnerable position. I wish my survival didn’t feel completely tied to this system. And ironically, if it didn’t feel that way, I think my career would be better. I’d be able to prioritize things I care about and am good at more.

          6. Delphine*

            Because we also live in a world where you need to work to survive. If work is essential to survival and you believe that everyone deserves a chance to survive, then yes, there needs to be some empathy and common sense when judging past experience. It’s wrong that these types of hiring practices further marginalize people who are already struggling when there is literally no other option for survival outside of working.

      3. Feotakahari*

        I dunno. If you write to Captain Awkward about your relationship problems, you shouldn’t be surprised when she says to break up, because it’s Captain Awkward and breaking up is what she usually recommends. In the same sense, you can’t really be surprised when Ask a Manager assumes that capitalism is a good thing, because that’s the default state of Ask a Manager’s advice.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Advising people on how to get the best results for themselves within the system we have isn’t the same as assuming that system is a good thing. The point of this site is concrete, here-and-now, hopefully practical advice to help people navigate their workplaces in a way most likely to get them the outcomes they want. If you want to take on the broader structures that we’re working within, I wouldn’t necessarily oppose that, but this isn’t the place for it.

          1. Mary Connell*

            The commenters are reminding me of a teenager I know who’s complaining about being pigeonholed by standardized tests. She’s an excellent student, but has developed an antipathy toward the current veneer of meritocracy over our system.

            My response: go ahead and complain, but you’re still taking the tests as long as universities require them for admission. You want an advanced degree, you’re going to have to jump through the hoops.

            1. logicbutton*

              I think, though, that just as there’s room for objecting to the dehumanizing expediency of standardized testing while still understanding that you have to do it if you want to go to college, there’s room to say that the system that put LW in the position they’re in is the real problem. I’m not seeing anyone saying that LW shouldn’t take the advice, just that it’s too bad that they have to.

          2. BRR*

            I have talked about your advice as the principle vs. the practical. The principle is how things should be while the practical is dealing with the reality of a situation. E.g. Your boss is a jerk who yells at their team all the time. The principle would be more along the lines of they either wouldn’t yell or someone would see it and put an immediate stop to it. The practical would be more like sometimes the yeller’s boss doesn’t care or the yeller is the owner of a company and the LW can’t just up and leave or tell the owner to stop. It’s very common that the practical part sucks but it also doesn’t really help deal with a problem.

            1. CAkid*

              I think I’m confused. The practical IS the way to deal with the problem. Did I misunderstand your last sentence?

              1. Butter Makes Things Better*

                I think BRR meant that the practical part (e.g. “here’s how to make your work life easier/more manageable when you have a boss who yells” or “how to rebuild a work history in a capitalist society”) often doesn’t or can’t address the overarching issue or the principle that’s being violated (e.g. “yellers yelling at work” or “capitalism has flaws”). At least that’s how I read it.

          3. sam*

            heh. this reminds me of the time I got into a really weird fight online with a guy who said I was “discriminating” because I had explained that someone is going to have a harder time getting a job if they had a giant face tattoo.

            I had to go around and around explaining that…no, I wasn’t saying it was a *good* or *fair* system, but it was the *existing* system, and if they wanted to get, say, an office job at some point down the road, maybe consider the potential outcomes before committing to the giant face tattoo.

        2. babblemouth*

          I think you’re being very unfair to both CA and AAM here, implying they can only give one type of advice. They both give excellent advice, and if their advice often seems similar it’s because most people tend to encounter similar problems, and both of them believe in giving you straight answers that relate to the world you live instead of coddling the advice-seekers.

          I hardly think Alison is a loud promoter of late-stage capitalism – more often than not, she points out when managers are being terrible and when situations are unfair, and then gives advice on how to navigate the situation. Advice seekers aren’t looking for tips to start a revolution, they’re looking for tips to make their lives easier.

          1. Observer*

            Exactly.

            It’s the whole “Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?” issue. Alison generally leans to “effective” even as she’ll call out bad behavior.

          1. Princess Loopy*

            Me too. And it seems like an especially unfair assessment tacked on to a post in which she quite clearly advocates for unions and workers’ protections.

        3. aebhel*

          It’s not so much assuming that capitalism is a good thing as assuming that it exists and needs to be taken into account by people who are trying to find work and function within the work world. ‘That’s terrible and it shouldn’t happen’ is all well and good, but it isn’t actionable advice.

          1. Annie Moose*

            ^^ This.

            The same thing has shown up on other letters in the past, where people get so hung up on principles that they seem to forget that principles don’t pay rent. Yes, Alison’s advice is based in “how to play the game you have to play because this is how the current system works”. LW4 needs (or probably will need) a job, and outright refusing to participate in the system (or refusing to give advice because apparently giving advice on how to navigate a situation means you think that situation is good?) will not get LW4 that job.

            1. Anon From Here*

              Imagine if Allison answered every letter with, “Eat the rich.”

              Our union negotiations are burning me out.
              “Eat the rich.” (OK, that’s not too far-fetched.)

              Should we text employees who are on vacay, even if it’s pictures of cats?
              “Eat the rich.”

              My employee is out really often with some kind of recurring condition.
              “Eat the rich.”

              Etc.

              1. babblemouth*

                I mean I don’t *disagree* with that dining advice, but it’s not very helpful if you don’t tell me what condiment and wine I should pair the rich with.

              2. Meghan*

                Saw a post somewhere that pointed out that the rich are at the top of the food chain, and thus full of toxins. Instead, *compost* the rich.

            2. logicbutton*

              So obviously in most places on the internet the comments are terrible, and sometimes advice column comments are no exception, but sometimes, when they’re good, they can provoke big-picture discussions that can be just as valuable in the long term as actionable advice is in the short term. The two can coexist quite nicely.

      4. Jenna Maroney*

        YUPPPPP. Not everyone can have sandwiches is sometimes used as an excuse to lack compassion here, and it *sucks.*

        1. Jenna Maroney*

          I think there’s also a kind of person that is shocked by the attitude of “Yeah, I screwed up, but I don’t deserve this and am willing to say so.” The idea that we have to be grateful for little, etc.

        2. That Would be a Good Band Name*

          I have to assume you are trolling at this point because you are so far off from what not everyone can eat sandwiches means. Not everyone can have sandwiches means to not shoot down an idea because it won’t work for everyone. Example: Someone suggests a quick easy lunch is sandwiches, but the next person comes in with a huge long list of why sandwiches don’t work for everyone so it shouldn’t be suggested as a quick easy lunch for anyone.

          You seem to think it means that people are saying that others deserve to be denied sandwiches. And that’s not what it means. At all.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes — as the creator of the rule, this is indeed exactly what it means. It does not mean “not everyone can have sandwiches, so oh well, too bad for them.”

      5. Leslie knope*

        I really like this blog and Allison’s answers generally but it does suck how much is all rooted in the capitalist model. Obviously the answers have to be rooted in navigating the world as is but it just sucks sometimes and I think a lot of American commenters really balk at comments about how things here aren’t (and should never be) the norm.

    1. Nacho*

      Most people graduate college in their early 20s, so for someone to need to recover from being a bad employee at 40 means they had to be crappy for almost 20 years. If that’s the case, I don’t really feel bad that you’re stuck in bad jobs.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I think OP deserves a bit more empathy—they had an undiagnosed disability for years and did not receive adequate medical care. That doesn’t change Alison’s advice about having to work yourself up the ladder, but I think it merits a little more sympathy than someone who was a terrible employee and has no explanation for why they were terrible.

        If OP is up for it, though, they may want to consider going back and getting a college degree. Higher ed has a nice way of “resetting” your work history, and often at a higher entry level than where it sounds like OP would restart right now (although I understand that it can be expensive and difficult to accommodate later in life). Several of my undergrad friends were “reentry” students who had service industry jobs for years before they enrolled in community college and transferred to a four-year university for their BA/BS. All were in their late 20s to mid-40s. They were by far the hardest working, most focused, and most competitive job candidates before and after graduation.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Ack, I should have kept reading before adding this! Lalaroo says the same downthread.

        2. Slartibartfast*

          Or consider a trade school. Granted, many of those are jobs that are more physical in nature, but not all of them are. And if it was/is a mental health impairment, physical jobs might be fine. It’s a shorter, cheaper education path and the jobs are high demand.

        3. Kelly*

          Using a fake name for this because I feel more comfortable, hope that is OK Alison and not trolling.

          I have empathy for her too. I have ADHD but was only diagnosed at age 28 (I am now 32) because my father dismissed it when teachers suggested I be tested as a child – he thought ADHD was something to be ashamed of and didn’t want his child to have it. I only learned this when I was diagnosed as an adult and my mother said “oh they said you should be tested for that, but your dad didn’t want them to”. WTF? If it was a physical issue, they’d have rushed me to be tested, but because it was a mental condition, I was left to suffer for over 2 decades.

          My work history throughout my twenties is not the best and much of it was because of my ADHD – I was disorganized, always managed to be late, was often drifting off and annoying bosses by having to ask them to repeat stuff I was already told in the meeting, was fidgety, terrible with time management, had trouble with co-workers because I would get upset easily and impulsively snap, I was great at losing things etc. I got fired a couple of times.

          What really bothers me in retrospect is knowing how many times I mentioned these sort of things to both doctors and therapists, and it wasn’t until I was 29 that one of them said “do you have ADHD? These sort of things are very common in people with ADHD”. I said “I don’t think so?” and she arranged for me to be tested. Sure enough, I had ADHD.

          After my diagnosis, I actually started to get treatment. I take a mild stimulant which REALLY helps me a lot, and my psychiatrist has helped me develop strategies that work for to control the things that cause me the most problems. For example, I am very creative and love artistic projects so getting into the “planning world” and getting to decorate my planner while writing out my weekly tasks motivates me to keep a planner, which I use daily.

          Now I am “behind” in my career and I can’t help but be frustrated at the fact I was not diagnosed early – that people didn’t push my father harder to make him see ADHD is simply a medical condition and not a reflection on his parenting skills (which suck anyway, for many reasons, but that is a different comment), and the medical professionals and therapists who didn’t make the connection when I was basically listing “Symptoms of Adult ADHD” many times over.

          One thing that really frustrates me is when people assume I was immature. I don’t consider myself any more immature than anyone else my age. I had an diagnosed condition that I am now aware of and managing well. I hate that the stigma around things like ADHD means this is tricky for me to navigate.

          1. sequined histories*

            As a teacher, I have personally been involved in a situation in which the school tried really hard for many years to persuade parents to give their permission for the student to have some basic screening tests done. The father never actually acknowledged that he simply “didn’t believe in that type of thing,” although a younger sibling eventually (and spontaneously) confided to me that that was the case. Parental rights to make certain decisions are very strong and unless life and limb are in jeopardy, they cannot be overridden.
            I am so sorry you didn’t get this sort of support earlier in your life. Please don’t assume that that happened because no one really cared enough to go to bat for you with your father, though. In a situation such as your own, there are a lot of constraints on what the school staff can (or should) say in front of (or directly to) the student in question.

      2. Jenna Maroney*

        I hope you or someone you love never finds yourself in that kind of position. This kind of attitude is lacking in compassion and understanding of how this can happen to people.

      3. aebhel*

        OP was unwell. Lots of people are, and the irony of chronic illness is that you often can’t get reliable health care unless you have health insurance, and you can’t get health insurance without a job, and you can’t get or keep a job because you’re too unwell to behave appropriately or deliver quality work. It’s a vicious cycle, and it happens to a lot of people who did nothing to deserve it other than get dealt a lousy hand in the body/brain department. It’s great that this hasn’t been an issue in your life, but I think a little compassion might be in order.

      4. Alton*

        A lot of people don’t have linear careers where they’re consistently employed from the time they graduate.

      5. Observer*

        Yes, but in this case, it also means that the person went un-diagnosed for over a decade. That’s a pretty lousy thing to happen. And while for the employer it doesn’t change much – people need to be able to bring value in order to stay employed – it does mean that the person deserves sympathy not condemnation.

    2. YB*

      My circumstances are very similar to OP #4’s, and it’s really unfortunate when an unaccommodated disability leads to a spotty work history. I’m in that boat myself. But Greg’s comment doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      A lot of the language Greg uses here is language I would only use to describe a big corporate job (which is the kind of job that’s often discussed at AAM, but not exclusively). If OP #4’s goal is to be a dental hygienist or a vet tech or an admin assistant, then they aren’t necessarily hoping to “go up the ladder” or “get to the pinnacle of” their profession. My dad got a blue-collar job in his late teens and is still there, working at that same job at that same company, in his early sixties. In those decades, he hasn’t spent a second thinking about “the game”, “the ladder”, or “the pinnacle”. Not all work is structured like that.

      And for work that *is* structured like that…age discrimination certainly occurs, but I don’t think it’s the default. There are some people out there who (even though it’s illegal) would hire a 16-year-old over a 55-year-old to work the counter at a fast food restaurant. For corporate-office-type jobs where there’s a “ladder”, if you’re moving someone from Senior Manager of Llama Grooming to Director of Llama Grooming, experience is often seen as a virtue in those environments. I’ve been on numerous search committees that have hired senior executives and CEOs, and we’ve never hired anyone under 55.

      Unfortunately, for someone like me or OP #4, some doors might be harder to walk through than they would be if we’d been better employees in our younger days. It might take more time, harder work, etc., and that’s a shame from our perspective. But from the employer’s perspective, why should they prefer me over someone who has a stronger track record? Employment isn’t a prize you get for being a good person. It’s about demonstrating you can do the job, and if someone has demonstrated that better than I have, them’s the breaks.

      1. JSPA*

        At least in my area there are plenty of plumbers and other tradespeople willing to start an older apprentice… if you’re able and willing to reliably be there at 6:30 or 7 a.m. If you have aptitude with spatial reasoning, tolerable arithmetic skills and a good memory, it can be a faster way to move to higher pay than the standard office work track.

      2. Emily K*

        There’s also people like me who aren’t interested in climbing as high as possible even when there is a ladder. I’m a senior manager in a very highly stratified org chart where I have associates, coordinators, assistants, specialists, and lower level managers below me, and directors, VPs, and C-Os/C-Es above me.

        It took me about 7 or 8 years to reach this level, where I’ve been for a while now, and at this point in time I have no interest in ascending any higher. There are plenty of things I’ve put off that I would take care of if I had more money, but it’s not life-critical stuff. They pay me enough. And I see how much harder the directors, VPs, and C-Os/C-Es work than I do. I get promoted again and they start expecting me to answer the phone at 9 PM on a Saturday. Nope. They can keep the money, I’d rather have my time.

        And someone with a spotty history trying to make a new start at 40 could reach this level in probably a decade if they applied themselves. Maybe 3 years in a retail/call center/service job, then they could probably come into a hierarchy like mine at the coordinator or specialist level and skip over the associate/assistant levels–the years of spotty history still do count as experience even if they don’t count as evidence of talent. After 2-3 years they might get promoted up to a project/program manager role, and 3-4 years of strong performance in that role could get them a promotion to senior management role. That’s 8-10 years from starting at the call center to the solid middle of the org chart, which is a place where a lot of people besides just me are quite happy to stay until they retire.

        1. Doug Judy*

          Add in some people don’t even want to be managers. Some people just want a decent paying job at a good company.

    3. Student*

      I had poorly managed medical issues that made me a terrible employee for my twenties and some of my thirties, and I found that resetting my work history with a new degree has helped. The OP is concerned about entering the workforce sometime in the future rather than right now, so this might be a great time to chase that bachelor’s degree.

      In my case, I started with online classes and went back to my state university after I regained some academic confidence. I recommend working with professors or getting internships, if possible–I turned forty this year, but I still spent the summer as an intern in a federal job. And my internship has offered me a full-time position in my field this May, when my coursework is done.

      Nobody cares about my earlier work history because I’m in a completely different field. No one’s looking at older employers–they’re checking grades and talking to my advisor. It’s amazing.

      This still means starting at entry-level, but recent grad entry level may be more desirable than retail or call center work, and you don’t have to fight your record. And working up is far faster if you can start a little higher on the ladder.

      1. Mary Connell*

        Online classes are a good possibility for some people, and there are some better options nowadays than there ever have been. One that comes to mind is Western Governor’s University. It’s cost-effective and a glance at their website shows that they are offering scholarship money now. They have limited programs, but also limited costs.

        In addition, your state might have a good online higher education program, or perhaps a local community college might be a good place to start.

      2. Smarty Boots*

        Professors love older students. Older / non traditional aged studenst tend to be paying for school themselves, they come on time and prepared, they work hard and contribute. Not that traditional aged students never do this, but in general older /non traditional aged students are more mature.

        Online classes are a great idea, as long as the student understands the personal qualities required for success: self-discipline, good time management, knows how to set up support structures, able to recognize early on when they’re having trouble or likely to have trouble, willing to look for help, willing to follow up on help offered. (This is why virtual high schools are so often a truly terrible idea.)

      3. Public Health Nerd*

        Completely agree. Your local community college is a great resource – they are much more experienced in working with people re-enter the workforce.

        The other way to build positive references is to volunteer at a local nonprofit. That way you can start building a reputation asseone reliable and hardworking.

    4. Media Gal*

      Age discrimination kicks in at 55? In which professions is that the case? I knew my chances of getting hired as a woman at a public relations, advertising, or digital media firm were almost nil after age 40.

  5. Not Myself Today*

    Regarding #2, I wouldn’t know because I wouldn’t have looked.

    My team has one way to contact me in the event of an extreme emergency when I’m on vacation (which has never happened) and only because I’m a manager. I message very clearly that individual contributors are expected to be entirely off while on vacation – no email, no work phone, no work of any kind – but I’m still convinced the biggest help I can be for my team in ensuring that they get to truly take vacation is taking time off myself.

    1. Ginger ale for all*

      Also, most people just have a general group to send to. I know I have one that is ready made that I go to. It seems unreasonable to try to remember who is on vacation, has a day off, or is out sick before I send a message. Plus, what if they need to be in on the communication when they get back? Just tell employees that they are not expected to check messages from work when they are off.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes! This is the problem with using people’s personal cells for work texts though (one of them, at least) … which is why muting may be the only way.

    2. Waiting for the Sun*

      Why send cute pet pictures in group texts to coworkers at all? Would be just as annoying when you’re at work, IMO.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        It doesn’t sound like in the context of that company, though, the people there think it’s annoying. This seems like a very office-specific thing. In my office, I would love it if my coworkers sent me cute pet pics.

      2. ThatGirl*

        I used to send out pictures of my dog once a week to select co-workers. I called it the Weekly Puppy. My dog is pretty stinking cute.

        The difference there is that it was via work email, once a week, and only to people who said “yes, I want to be included.”

      3. Yorick*

        I know the commenters here trend toward not being friendly with coworkers, but I and many others would be delighted to get pet photos from coworkers.

        1. Lehigh*

          I would be delighted to get them in my email.

          I highly dislike group texts, since soooo many people reply to the whole group with “thanks” or “oh how cute” etc. I don’t think I’m unusual in this.

          1. JB*

            Yep. My boss sends around cute pet photos…well after hours and on weekends, and you feel like you might get dinged if you don’t reply, but we don’t all keep her late hours or hang out on our phones all the time either.

          2. soon 2be former fed*

            I do not heart group texts and the resultant all-group relies most of which are unidentified so you don’t know who is saying what.

        2. Just Employed Here*

          We have a very friendly and warm relationship with each other at work. Still, I have yet to receive a picture of anyone’s pet sent by any method.

  6. RUKiddingMe*

    OP3: Sounds like she had gastric byoass. All of her stuff us legit including “ate too much.”

    Eating too much can cause a GBP patient to be **unable to function**…at all. Bad enough that all they can do is lie still for a couple/several hours.

    Of course thus isn’t likely info she wants you to know because it’s her private medical stuff.

    1. Pumpkin Soup*

      This is one of many possible explanations and it’s probably not going to be helpful to make assumptions about which one is correct.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yep, I’m going to ask that we not get into this kind of speculation here because it can take us far off-track. If you do want to speculate, I ask that you explain how it changes your advice for the letter-writer. (Now a new commenting rule!)

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          I wasn’t really speculating as much as pointing out that everything OP describes, all of it, each and every symptom, sounds exactly like symptoms experienced by GBP patients.

          Because OP sounds dubious of “ate too much” I was offering up the fact that “ate too much” can be a legitimate thing…medically speaking. Not saying the employee is a GBP patient, only that her symptoms are super similar to those experienced by GBP patients.

          It is something that helps inform the OP because she feels that “ate too much” is an invalid reason to take sick leave, when if it is something like this it is not at all invalid and doesn’t mean that the employee simply over indulged at the BBQ on Saturday.

          Being aware that this is a legitimate thing that a lot of people go through, people who don’t necessarily want to tell everyone they had GBP because there is a stigma that they just took an “easy” way out, and understanding some of the symptoms is something OP should be aware of, in general, not just for this particular employee, as much as she would (hopefully) be aware that a migraine isn’t something someone can simply take a Tylenol for and be all better.

          1. Snark*

            I don’t think “being aware” of a possibility really changes the script or is in any way specifically actionable. OP is already perfectly aware that it could be a health issue, type undetermined, as she states in her letter; that category includes GBP side-effects. Alison’s suggested script is really all she needs to move forward in managing this issue.

          2. puppies*

            I think what OP as the manager rightly takes issue with is that using “I ate too much,” as the excuse for calling out sick so frequently sounds unprofessional and (in my opinion) juvenile. This isn’t about how awful it can make you feel if you eat too much, this is about professionalism. If OP’s direct report called out sick citing “stomach issues,” (which is still vague enough to maintain privacy), then it wouldn’t be an issue, or OP may still be concerned about the amount they are taking off, but then they would be more concerned about OP’s health instead of their judgment of frequently using this odd excuse.

        2. McWhadden*

          Doesn’t the fact that eating too much can be entirely legitimate change the advice? The LW shouldn’t work from the assumption that it’s either bogus or another issue.

          1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

            I feel like the script still stands. It is good to know that there is a probable cause that is not some horrific medical condition the employee doesn’t know she has, but this still needs to be addressed. I’m sure it’s really hard to constrain yourself to tiny portions of everything, but this is still something the employee is bringing on herself that is causing her to miss work. The original script was:

            “You’ve called out sick five times in the last few months, each time saying it was because you ate too much. We need you here to be here reliably, and I’m concerned that this has become a pattern. I want to be clear that if you have a medical condition that’s causing this, we can explore whether there are ways for us to accommodate that. But otherwise I do need you to be here more reliably.”

            This still seems like the best way to address this, considering we can’t know for sure, and this is still behavior that needs to change.

            1. McWhadden*

              I think the idea that she’s “bringing it on herself” is not justifiable. If she did have a gastric bypass or another syndrome what is “too much” is not at all clear. A portion can be fine one day and not the next.
              And while the script stands, going into this assuming “eating too much” isn’t possible a real thing is definitely going to impact tone and how this comes across.

              1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

                The thing is, by saying the reason she’s out sick is because she ate too much, the employee is making it sound like she brought it on herself. If this is out of her control in any way – her phrasing is terrible and she needs to understand it makes her look bad and out of touch and needs to find a new way to describe it to her work. Too much makes it sound like there is a set amount she can eat and she knowingly exceeded it. If she can control it then it needs to be addressed, but if she can’t then they need to go into medical accommodations and the script works both ways. Again, we can’t know either way so we shouldn’t assume the condition is for sure, so I think the script works really well.

              2. Lauren*

                That is what I immediately thought. That is a post-surgery sick day. With the lap-band, you also have to go in and adjust the settings too. So ‘eating too much’ isn’t a one-time issue, but a recurring thing as you adjust your intake post each adjustment. The accommodation would prob be having ‘adjustment’ appts on Friday afternoons so that it doesn’t impact work.

            2. RUKiddingMe*

              I think that “bringing it on herself” is unfair. “Too much” changes from day to day, even hour to hour for some people. For example, the day before yesterday I took two very normal sized bites of a sandwich and was sick (and in pain) for three hours. Yesterday I was able to eat an entire similar sandwich with no problems at all. It’s not perfect and there is no absolute metric that says “this far, no further.”

          2. RUKiddingMe*

            This was what I was trying to say. I read it as OP being fairly negative and even maybe antagonistic about “eating too much” and was trying to offer some info about how it can totally be a legitimate thing. Apparently that was wrong.

            1. AMPG*

              But it would still be due to an underlying medical condition, i.e. the effects of the gastric bypass, and that part is covered in the script provided.

          3. Observer*

            What difference does it make?

            What the OP does remains the same because at this point all that matters is that it might be a medical issue, not WHAT the particular issue is.

        3. Close Bracket*

          The difference this would make in my advice would be that I would never have said she was acting cavalier about it. This sounds so, so likely that she has a condition that she doesn’t want to discuss. I would never have taken the tone that the LW takes in the first place. Since she did take that tone, if I were the one she was asking, I would have advised saying something closer to,

          “You’ve called out sick five times in the last few months. I don’t need to know the details, but I want to be clear that if you have a medical condition that’s causing this, we can explore whether there are ways for us to accommodate that. I do need you to be here more reliably, so let’s see what we can work out.”

      2. RUKiddingMe*

        I probably could have phrased it better. It sounds like she may have had GBP. Others have suggested IBS, Chrons, etc.

        I think the employee likely has something medical that she isn’t mentioning and isn’t just overindulging. “Eating too much” is so subjective. It could mean a few racks of ribs, or like for me, an entire banana at one sitting.

        I think that OP could maybe approach the employee with something along the lines of “you call out sick saying you ate too much, this is generally not a reasonable excuse, however if you have a medical thing that needs an accommodation, we can talk about that…” or some such thing. I think OP needs to understand that “ate too much” can be a legit thing though.

        1. Birch*

          Your last paragraph is the main point. Without knowing anything about the employee’s medical history, “ate too much” is not a good excuse to miss work–as others have said, this is totally avoidable and sounds bizarre without context. If it IS a medical thing, the employee needs to frame it in a way that makes sense, especially if they want to avoid divulging personal information. Just like if you had to miss work because you had an allergic reaction, or food poisoning, you wouldn’t call out because “I ate peanuts” or “I had egg salad,” you would say you had an allergic reaction or you had an illness. “Ate too much” is not an illness, it’s a behaviour, and is therefore not a reasonable reason to call out. I’d want to find out why the employee is framing it this way and thinking that’s reasonable–is it just disregard for the norms of work, like someone blatantly calling in with a hangover, or is it a TMI attempt to explain a medical condition?

          1. Persimmons*

            This is the best take. Whether or not Stacia is dealing with an undiagnosed issue, she needs coaching on how to appropriately express the need to call out. Framing it as “behavior versus effect” is excellent.

        2. Joielle*

          Isn’t that exactly what Alison’s script said, though? Especially this sentence: “I want to be clear that if you have a medical condition that’s causing this, we can explore whether there are ways for us to accommodate that.”

        3. Observer*

          Your last paragraph is pretty much Alison’s advice, just with less discussion of whether this sounds like a reasonable excuse.

    2. Gen*

      I was thinking that but in that case if OP uses Alison’s script the answer would be either “yep I have a medical condition that means the tipping point for ‘ate too much’ is really small” at which point they can have a conversation about how ‘I ate too much’ comes across as an unprofessional excuse and to phrase it different; or the employee will deny it and OP will have to ask that they better manage it. The employee might not want to share the full details but if they don’t share that they have a medical condition at all then it can’t really be accommodated.

      1. Echo*

        Yep, this. I have a totally different medical issue (air-swallowing/aerophagia) that causes these exact symptoms if I eat a large meal too quickly, and I would never dream of calling out “because I ate too much”. I mean, I try to stick to “not feeling well” in the spirit of not oversharing, but I’ve had to leave midday because of stomach pain and I’ll say so. If it became a pattern I would definitely be upfront about having a medical issue; that said, Gen is spot on that the issue here is using the “ate too much” excuse, not 5 absences in a couple of months.

        1. puppies*

          Yes exactly. I have a very sensitive stomach and get full easy. If I have to call out sick for digestive problems I tell them I’m having stomach issues or that my stomach is bothering me.

    3. Oilpress*

      Regardless of what it could be, the employee said they overate. I have to trust my employees unless I have proof otherwise. If they miss multiple days and say they overate then I have to tell them that is an unacceptable reason for missing work.

      It’s not a manager’s job to run medical screens or play forensic detective. Based on the evidence available, this employee is just being irresponsible.

    4. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

      Well, if this is the case, the employee should explain a bit more, because her current excuse sounds a bit odd. In fact it strikes me that she somehow thinks it sounds better than whatever is really going on (though of course that’s speculation).

    5. The Other Dawn*

      As someone who has had gastric bypass, I want to comment. It’s been almost five years for me.
      Some people who have had GB have many issues with food: they can’t digest certain things, like steak or raw veggies; food gets “stuck” because it’s too dry or dense, or they didn’t chew well enough; some foods just don’t agree with them because they’re greasy or sugary; or any number of things. And some people have few or no issues (me). We typically figure out very quickly if we can tolerate a certain food or not. Usually if we can’t tolerate it, we know the first time we eat it and learn to avoid it in the future. And if we decide to eat it anyway even though we know we can’t tolerate it? Well, that’s our own fault. We end up suffering the physical consequences.

      All that said, we have no idea if OP’s employee had GB. Maybe she did and doesn’t want to share, because the stigma is real and I’ve experienced it. If she had the surgery and it’s recent, she may be in the process of figuring out what she can and can’t eat. Although, typically when we (GB patients) overeat, we’re not needing to call out of work the next day. Reactions to foods, whether it’s too much sugar, grease, whatever, and overeating typically clear up anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours. Or maybe she has some medical problem. Or maybe she no medical problems and just doesn’t like the job so is calling out. Or she really is just overeating and feeling crappy the next day.

      Whether the employee is calling out because of an uncontrolled medical issue, or is calling out for some reason that’s under her control, OP still needs to talk to her and figure out what’d going on. OP hired her to do a job and be reliable, and if she’s calling out a lot, OP needs to talk to her and get it straightened out.

  7. Lalaroo*

    OP 4, this might be totally impossible and not useful, but I think one way to get a sort of restart button on job searching would be to go back and get your degree. Having a brand-new, significant qualification can do a lot to make what came before less relevant. It can also mask your age a bit during the initial resume review, which is sadly sometimes really useful.

    I don’t think getting a degree would let you jump in at the same rung of the ladder you would have been on if you’d been working steadily with no firings or instability, but it could make it so your entry-level/pay-your-dues jobs are a step up from call centers/retail work.

    1. nnn*

      Good thinking! Or, even if getting a degree is prohibitive (or just not right for you), some kind of training or credential that is typically the first step or prerequisite to that particular career. Some career paths have more formal structures for getting new graduates into jobs, where being a newly-minted graduate trained for this specific career has more weight than your prior work history. And if the fact that you’re older than new graduates whose paths were more linear should become an issue, you could present it as a career change, or as a plucky bootstraps narrative.

      1. Indoor Cat*

        I was just thinking that! I have a few friends who spent a year or two getting a degree in cosmetology, radiology tech, HVAC tech, and dental assisting at the local community college (Tri-C) after having a spotty work history or issues earlier in life, and each of them got jobs in their field. I know it’s an anecdote, but all of those seem to have a dramatic projected increase in job growth in the next ten years, and employers definitely want to hire people with recent certifications.

    2. Gaia*

      And if a degree isn’t possible (or appropriate) consider (legitimate) certifications that may make sense for your field.

    3. Julia*

      That really depends on the degree, though. If OP gets something for an in-desire field, she has a good chance. If not, she may have just lost more years she could have worked.

      1. Slartibartfast*

        The key here is to find the in demand jobs first, then figure out what certification you need to get them.

      2. Yojo*

        I have a not particularly relevant/useful degree, but I can frame it as hitting the reset button on my professional life, or opening some new perspectives. It can still be helpful.

        1. Julia*

          I want this to work for everyone, of course, but as someone who just got a master’s so I could stop being an admin assistant forever, this approach has not worked for me at all, unfortunately. :(

    4. FD*

      And if they are practical for you, don’t ignore trade school/apprenticeship programs too! Many of the trades very desperately need new people coming into the workforce, so the education tends to be less expensive, and apprenticeships are generally paid.

      1. aebhel*

        This! They’re often a lot cheaper, and the job placement can be much better, especially for older graduates.

    5. Yetanotherjennifer*

      Manufacturing would also be a good thing to explore. Those jobs can require more technical knowledge and problem solving than they used to, which means they can be more varied and interesting than months of adding part a to component b. Manufacturing companies tend to have huge hiring shortages and will provide job training. And many companies promote people off the floor and into the office.

      If the medical issues don’t rule a manufacturing job out, it could be a faster solution than a trade or degree.

    6. Anon From Here*

      Concur. A good friend of mine quit their undergrad program about 30 years ago, then went back recently to get those last few credits for their bachelor’s degree. Not to put too fine a point on it, but since my friend had quit university with just one course to go, the university was happy to take their money and hand over the degree for just some minimal class attendance and a little good-faith effort on a single project.

      Everybody’s mileage will vary, obviously. But finishing a degree later in life can be a win-win for both the student (who adds the achievement to their resume) and the school (who adds a “non-traditional student graduate” to their statistics). So both parties can be very motivated to make the result happen.

    7. an infinite number of monkeys*

      Another possible suggestion, if OP4 is in the US, is to register through your state’s disabilities assistance agency jobs program. At the state agency where I work – I think this is all of the government agencies in my state – we are required to get our temps through that agency’s contracted vendor. These are folks who have some kind of barrier to employment, such as a disability.

      In state agencies, allotted staffing isn’t always in line with staffing needs. So a lot of temp positions are long-term, and many of those positions are eventually posted as full-time, with the person who’s already experienced in the job at significant advantage. And even when they don’t, when we have high performers in these positions, they tend to get snapped up* by adjacent departments when they get openings. It’s a great foot in the door for a government career track.

      *”Snapped up” is probably the wrong phrase to use when we’re talking about state government. A better predatory metaphor would be The Blob, seeping gradually over you and absorbing you until nothing of you is left. But the end result is the same. :)

    8. Student*

      I commented with my experiences above, but I just wanted to note here that this really works. I recommend making a big effort to get to know professors and tell them you’re looking for work in the field. Most have connections and like helping students when possible.

  8. YB*

    OP #4, as I’ve said in a reply to another comment, my circumstances are so similar to yours that I briefly wondered if I’d written your letter in my sleep. Some things that helped me were:

    * Setting really clear goals around what I wanted to do. There was a period where I was just applying for every job, and that’s never a good path.

    * Getting further education.

    * Seeking accommodations at work, once I’d realized that my disabilities were the root of my problems.

    * Many employers in my jurisdiction have great affirmative action programs for people with disabilities – maybe yours is the same. (I hesitated to share this, as I know that some people don’t believe in affirmative action, but in my opinion, it’s not about giving people unearned advantages—it’s about combating the effects of unfair disadvantages like the ones the OP has faced.)

    * Networking with people in my chosen field.

    * Developing relevant skills and connections by volunteering in the field as much as possible, or in other fields that provided transferable skills.

    * Broadening the geographic area in which I was willing to look for jobs.

    I hope some of this helps!

    1. Doug Judy*

      I’d also check if there are any resources with your local Workforce Development office. In my state there is a specific division dedicated to helping people with disabilities gain employment.

      1. AMPG*

        Agree with this. I work in workforce development and there are basic job-readiness certifications you can get that are designed to help people with spotty work histories show that they’ve dealt with their past issues.

  9. nnn*

    For #1, I’d recommend mentioning sooner rather than later to the rest of the bargaining committee, or your union people, or whoever is appropriate, that you’re beginning to think that you might have to step down. That way, they’ll have plenty of notice to replace you or work around you or whatever needs to be done, so it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the negotiations for your entire unit.

    1. Unlucky in Labor*

      OP here.
      That’s not a bad point. I’m going to ruminate on this issue some more, but either way I need to have a talk with my shop steward.

  10. Pumpkin Soup*

    #1 I don’t think you can answer this question in a vacuum of just thinking about the negotiation. You are one person and you can only do so much. So you’re going to need prioritise. Does someone need to do this negotiation? Yes. Does it have to be you? No. And if you burn out and aren’t able to do anything, you also won’t be able to do it.

    I think it’s ok to ask yourself what you can handle right now – rather than making it all about what you are obliged to do about one of the many things on your plate.

  11. HannahS*

    #3, You might want to add a line to Alison’s script about what Stacia should actually do if she needs accommodation. Arrange a meeting with you? Talk to HR? Be explicit.* As someone who gets accommodations now and probably forever, I’ll say that by and large, people don’t know they’re doing the first time they need accommodation. Who will she talk to? Will she need to tell you the details? I realize probably not, but she might not know that, and may choose to stay silent rather than discuss her bowel disease or eating disorder (for example) with you. Or she may tell you all kinds of details that you don’t want to know. Will she need a doctor’s note? I’m not saying you can (or should) answer all those questions pre-emptively, but I’d recommend extending Alison’s line into something like, “I want to be clear that if you have a medical condition that’s causing this, we can explore whether there are ways for us to accommodate that. If that’s the case, you and I should have a meeting to discuss what we can do to support you and help you get your work done. Otherwise […]” My point is: issue an instruction that’s easy for her to follow. If she’s sick, you need her to talk to you. If she’s not sick, she needs to be show up.

    *In general, be explicit. It’s such a source of anxiety when I’m in this process of getting accommodation in school and I hear things like, “Yes, we’ll to discuss this with your supervisor.” “We” could be any combination of myself, the accessibility office, or the program office. “Supervisor” could mean the person I spend the day with, the person who evaluates me, the person who signs the evaluation, or the site director. Or all of them? Do I arrange the meeting, or does someone else? “Discuss”–what? My specific needs, or just a general note that I’m coming where I have to arrange the details?

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Agreed, but also be prepared for the employee not to follow this actionable advice. I’ve seen many employees who have what I suspected to be a ADA covered issue, who even after being told explicitly that their attendance is a problem and would result in termination if not corrected, contact HR who may have options that would help blah ADA blah FMLA blah and still didn’t contact or seek assistance from HR and went on to be fired.

      It’s maddening as a manager to watch someone go through this. Most* managers and companies are totally willing and able to work something out if only the employee would do their part.

      *Yes, someone will come to tell me about the one time that their manager and HR didn’t work with the employee and they ended up being fired or terminated, IMHO, this is the exception and not the rule.

      1. MatKnifeNinja*

        My sister deals with this alot.

        She’s had two employees with “similar issues” to Stacia. Eating was an issue and led to absences. (Post bariatric surgery, the other a very active eating disorder)

        What made my sister so angry, is HR didn’t want to play hard ball rules. They were more than willing to make accommodations. For whatever reason, neither person couldn’t pull it together enough to make it over to HR, or flat out refused because the person didn’t want anyone in their business.

        For every jerk in HR, there is at least another HR person, getting her hand pushed by an employee willing to do nothing

      2. HannahS*

        Well yeah, I mean, people are people and disabled people aren’t better than anyone else, and in the stress, shame (I’m not disabled, I should power through, I don’t need [accommodation]), and general disaster of becoming or being seriously ill, things slip. All the more reason to make it as easy as possible for people to know what to do.

  12. Oilpress*

    OP#2 – Do people really group text their coworkers? Email is just as easy to use and can be ignored/avoided as needed by vacationers. And if you just want to chat about something happening in that moment then IM seems more applicable. I see very little reason to text. I certainly wouldn’t be lighting up my direct reports’ phones while they were out of the office.

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          Sometimes it’s helpful. For things like “Hey, the power’s out!” or “Hey, there is a speed trap up the road” or “I’ll be late but i’m bringing donuts!”. It can be helpful if no one abuses it.

            1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

              They are helpful? If the power is out at work then you might not need to come in/ might go to a different location with power/ might want to pickup coffee because there will be none. If there is a speed trap on the road to work that is helpful so you don’t get pulled over. If I’ll be late then the worriers at my office won’t worry that something is wrong, and Jan might decided to wait for donuts rather than having her morning granola. These type of texts are super common at my work and the first two would be really appreciated by most people.

              1. mark132*

                I guess you have a point with the power out, though where I work we have backup power. But with the speed trap, I wouldn’t appreciate it. Especially since for it to be timely requires texting and driving.

                For me the only mass text I want from my coworkers/employer are situations that require an immediate action from all the recipients. So there is a gas leak in the building etc, otherwise email is far better.

    1. Stephanie*

      I don’t group text my co-workers, but I had the numbers of the 3 other night people I worked with, as well as two of our desk support. We’d exchange information that way.

    2. Indigo a la mode*

      My two coworkers and boss and I text or use Snapchat to chat when we see the odd thing that we’d like to share with each other when we aren’t at work, and we definitely all send travel pictures (and dog pictures) to the group. But then, we’re also the type who go hiking together and attend each other’s personal events. That’s apparently a sharp minority among AAM readers, but I love it.

      1. Waiting for the Sun*

        It would be great to be that friendly with coworkers, I just don’t use texts that way.
        What you’re describing sounds like Facebook content.
        But if you all enjoy it, great. Different strokes.

    3. Dankar*

      Yup! My old coworkers had a What’s App chat that we used for everything from “office is closing early due to snow” to “check out the awesome gym at my hotel!” What’s App was great because we could still chat even when one or more of us were overseas, and my partner once used my phone to update the office about how my surgery went when I was out.

      It was a different kind of office environment, and we were all very friendly outside of work, too. I’m not sure that I would ever want that level of closeness again, but at the time, I really enjoyed it.

    4. mark132*

      Honestly I don’t see why you would want to do it while they are in the office for that matter. Business communication is best handled through email (or something like slack as Alison suggests). And if you don’t want to send it through work email or other official channels, for me that is a pretty good reason that it shouldn’t be blasted out anyways.

      1. nnn*

        And, TBH, I’d rather get the dog pictures through email as well. I do want to see them (and they’re especially useful in the middle of a stressful work day!) but I don’t need them immediately in my pocket while I’m out and about in the middle of doing something else.

    5. Lucille2*

      I tell my direct reports to text only when the message is urgent or they need a response right away. Like, text me in the morning when you need to take a sick day or you’re running late, or text me if you need to reach me while I’m traveling. But low-importance stuff and/or personal things? Email, slack, group skype, whatever mode of communication I can easily ignore off-hours is preferred. And there are ways to designate the conversation as low-importance or personal/for-fun or whatever. Disconnecting after work after hours, and especially while on vacation, is so important. We should all respect our coworkers time away from the office as their own personal time.

  13. PersonalJeebus*

    OP2, is this a running group text? If so, then your recourse is to encourage your reports (and maybe suggest to your peers/superiors) to mute the group text when they are out of the office. Because of the nature of group texts/chats, you don’t really have standing to tell your boss she has to track who is available to participate.

    Group texting etiquette is a fairly new thing, but one clear rule I’ve learned is that it’s the individual’s responsibility to control how much the group conversation intrudes into their life. It’s too much hassle to expect the group at large to track who is on vacation, whose mother just died so maybe they’d rather not be bothered, who is sick in bed, etc. The unavailable/uninterested people get to decide when to opt out.

    Example: I’m on a highly entertaining group text with my college friends, and it’s extremely important to me to keep in touch with them, but I can’t have it going off all day when I’m trying to work, so I don’t get notifications. If someone is very busy, traveling, or having a hard time in their private life, we often don’t hear from them for many days. I assume they are doing what they need to do to block out the noise.

    1. SpiderLadyCEO*

      Yep, this. It’s super easy to mute group texts, and it’s much more of a nightmare to remove/add people from threads if that’s what you usually use.

      I’ve found if you use slack on mobile like my office does, it’s almost exactly the same – when I travel I end up just turning off Slack notifications, exactly like I would mute the group thread.

    2. greenius*

      I agree with this. I’m in an ongoing group chat with a group of friends, and I participate only when it’s a good time to do so. The mute option is definitely super helpful, especially when the group text is particularly active.

      In fact, I got so annoyed with the texts going a mile a minute when I was in labor, I muted the group text & kept it muted until my son was 2 months old. None of my friends cared, or even noticed. Anything important or personal was communicated through other means.

  14. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

    OP 4: If you are able bodied, blue collar is also a decent option. Lots of jobs with 40 hour weeks, health insurance, and pay that’s better than minimum wage. In my area there are usually quite a few manufacturing jobs open.

    If you get into skilled blue collar, the money gets better. But I’d definitely give it a try before investing in training.

  15. MentalEngineer*

    OP1: I’m the grievance chair for a union with deeply intransigent management, so I completely feel your pain. In regard to bargaining, at least, is there a way you can stay involved but to a lesser degree? For example, can you focus on researching comparables, planning counterproposals, or drafting talking points while other members of the bargaining team are the ‘faces’ at the table? After all, if you’re not one of the people who has to literally sign the contract, your involvement in the bargaining process is 100% none of your employer’s business. You can truthfully say that you’re no longer a member of the bargaining team but still pitch in to the degree that you’re able. Or if you have to be the ‘face,’ can you outsource more of that background work to other people? That way, even if tensions stay high, you’ll still be putting in less work.

    But more than any specific action, I think you need to reach out to your other union members and ask for help. Union work does expand to take up as much space as you have available, because there’s always something else that needs to be done. Making the fight so hard that the leaders burn out or back off from fear is a management tactic that goes all the way back to the start of the labor movement, and I applaud you for not wanting to give in to it. But if you can’t trust your comrades to help you when you need help, your union has a much more fundamental problem than your horrible management. That’s what all those great poster phrases like “We can do together what we cannot do alone” mean.

    1. Union Maid*

      could not agree more. Part of this is also about Trade Union work becoming less ‘ordinary’ so that people have everyday conversations about how it fits in different lives. I see this here in the UK and imagine it is even more so in the USA, where union density tends to be lower.

    2. anon union rep*

      Yes, seconding this! I’m a union rep and I’d definitely suggest just talking to your rep/steward/chief negotiator and seeing if there’s a good balance that can be found. If you don’t end up staying on the bargaining committee, there’s still a lot you can do behind the scenes. Especially if they’ve filed NLRB charges – members who can provide confidential affidavits are a huge asset in those fights, and management will never know that you talked to the NLRB.

      1. MentalEngineer*

        The affidavit comment is a great addition! I’m a state employee, so we’re not covered by the NLRA – our chain usually stops at the state labor commission and I know basically nothing about how NLRB cases work.

  16. Ellen N.*

    Original poster #4, have you considered the gig economy? I lost my job in finance a few years ago. I’m now an Airbnb host, rent my house for film shoots on Giggster and Wrapal and bake cakes for the caterer who lives next door. Other gig economy jobs include driving for Lyft/Uber, doing chores via Taskrabbit, food delivery services such as Uber Eats, dog walking/pet sitting, housesitting, child care, etc.

    I make much less money, but I spend less because I have time to cook my own meals and clean my house. I’m way happier being home than I was when I worked sixty hours a week.

    1. Me*

      The problem with the gig economy and freelancing is no benefits!

      I’m petrified of being in the OP’s position – i don’t have a spotty work history but I do have a late work history due to illnesses – started at 24 and worked retail for 4 years, got my graduate degree at 30, and now I’m doing AmeriCorps. The month between when my student insurance ended and the AC benefits started has been so nightmarish I can’t imagine having to wait 6 months or whatever if I have to go back to retail to build a work history especially as very few retail jobs have affordable insurance.

      1. Jenna Maroney*

        Because god forbid someone with a certain job want health insurance!!! I hate how much power employers have in this country.

    2. SarahTheEntwife*

      That’s certainly something to consider, but given that the LW mentions disability, they may be prioritizing something that would eventually have health insurance.

      1. IwillThinklater*

        Yeah, the gig economy can be an option, but it is less an option for someone who needs the benefits offered by an employer. If she has other options for health care and such benefits, great. (really, health care needs to be de-coupled from employment–and everyone have access to reliable care).

      2. Indoor Cat*

        Possibly, although I can afford pretty high quality health insurance that covers what I need while being self-employed, and I have a fairly serious chronic illness myself.

        Now, obviously, that could change, and it varies by state and your other expenses (cost of living, debt, etc), but at least in Ohio I was able to afford the highest tier of insurance offered on Healthcare.gov when I started making $30k/year. At that level, a person with no dependents no longer qualifies for Medicaid, so I was nervous about switching, but I was pleasantly surprised at the options available.

        So, yeah! Don’t discount self-employment right off the bat for healthcare reasons; at least investigate what’s available.

    3. Not a Mere Device*

      Also, is LW4 in a position to do that sort of stuff? Driving for Uber/Lyft means having a car that’s in decent condition and that nobody else needs at the same time. The situation as described suggests that she is at best sharing a family/household car, so she might have to take someone to work in the morning, do the Uber/Lyft driving, and then pick that person up from work. The net gain from that, minus the extra gas and wear and tear on the car, rather than the simple there-and-back commute, might not be very large.

      I don’t think it’s “not everyone can eat sandwiches” to point out that an unemployed person with a spotty work history is a lot more likely to be staying in a parent or other relative’s spare room than to have a house with a spare room she can rent out, and have enough control to be able to invite a film crew in. We start from where we are–taking those gigs made sense for you because you had the house and car when you lost your job: How can I keep the house and car I already have? is a different question from How can I get to the point of being able to afford my own car and a place of my own?

      1. Observer*

        Some gig economy jobs don’t really require those kinds of resources though.

        It’s certainly a decent suggestion, although it’s not a “why don’t you just” type of thing.

        1. Ellen N.*

          “Some gig economy jobs don’t really require those kinds of resources though.”

          Thank you for making that point. I mentioned Taskrabbit, child care, housesitting, dog walking and pet care/sitting none of which require assets.

          Uber has partnerships with car rental agencies so that drivers don’t need to own cars. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it to drive for Uber or Lyft. As so many people do it clearly there are differences of opinion on this matter.

          As an educated guess I would surmise that the original poster doesn’t have much in the way of assets or income. This means that he/she would qualify for subsidized medical insurance under Obamacare.

    4. Holly*

      I think that’s reasonable advice but only depending on OP’s safety net. You say you left a job in finance, so there’s no way for OP to know if say maybe you have savings or other assets (i.e. a place to rent out) that have assisted you to do these tasks and not starve. Other people find it extremely hard to make a living off something like Uber driving – it’s an extreme grind. That definitely also depends on where OP is living and the competition in these types of services.

      1. Ellen N.*

        I know that Uber driving is an extreme grind. I would find Uber driving vastly preferable to working in retail or in a call center per Alison’s advise.

    5. Anon From Here*

      I lost my job in finance a few years ago. I’m now an Airbnb host, rent my house for film shoots

      I think you may have had more of a financial cushion to fall onto than LW#4 is dealing with. “Just do gig economy stuff” isn’t a suggestion I’d give someone who needs steady, long-term, predictable employment.

      1. Ellen N.*

        I don’t know why you put “just do gig economy stuff” in quotation marks as I didn’t say that. I asked if the original poster had considered it. The fact is that one can make substantially more than minimum wage in the gig economy.

        Neither retail nor call centers are steady, long term or predictable. One of the biggest complaints from retail workers is their unpredictable schedules. Also many employers who pay low wages only offer part time jobs so that they don’t have to offer benefits such as health insurance.

  17. misspiggy*

    I hope OP3 is kinder to their employee than some of the commenters here. If you’ve grown up with an issue that no one has encouraged you to get help for, it’s very possible to have no idea that you need medical intervention.

    The employee could be hiding something, but could equally think they’re not experiencing anything that unusual. Seeking diagnosis can take a while, especially with digestive stuff. By all means get the employee to take the issue seriously and pursue medical help, but it may be necessary to discuss accommodations before a clear diagnosis is in place.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      I agree. People also write off women’s symptoms because they’re just being ~crazy~ or overreacting.

    2. EddieSherbert*

      Yes, she might need accommodations even without a proper diagnosis… but right now, however serious it is, she’s really downplaying it by saying “I overate”. I mean, that could mean a lot of things? And is unusual enough to stand out. I think it’s totally fair for her manager to be concerned that she’s calling out regularly, at the last second, with the same unusual-sounding reason each time. They’re allowed to ask what’s up!

    3. Queen of the File*

      Absolutely. Some of these gastric issues are common in families, so sometimes it doesn’t occur to a person that something they and many of their relatives have been living with is not part of normal/healthy digestion.

    4. mark132*

      I get where you are coming from, but I’ve been the coworker on the other side. Where your coworker is sick yet again, and I’m left covering for them yet again. And the frustration can build. And if I were hearing the reason they are out is due to ‘ate to much’ for the fifth time in a three month period. I’m going to get frustrated. Out of the blue that reason without any further context is going to sound only marginally better than “drank to much”.

      1. HannahS*

        Right, but OP isn’t a coworker, she’s the boss. And now that you’ve read the comments explaining possibilities, you can remind yourself that the likelihood that she’s out sick that often purely due to a lack of self-discipline is unlikely–probably there’s something that you don’t know about (and aren’t entitled to know about) going on. And if you’re the coworker getting slammed, you should talk to your boss about redistributing the coworker’s tasks, not let resentment build between you and the coworker.

        1. mark132*

          Actually I really don’t know any of that, everything I’ve read here is just speculation about this situation. I don’t want to come off as unsympathetic, I have chronic conditions with my digestive system (I’m hurting right now), however frustration is going to build when over a long period, there is a coworker not pulling their weight (or even the perception of it.) And it doesn’t matter how slick a job your manager does redistributing tasks to an already busy team, long term it will get resented, this is even for a sympathetic reason.

        2. Observer*

          Which doesn’t make it any better – the frustration is real.

          Of course, the OP needs to consider the possibility that there really is a bigger issue at play, but they are not being a terrible person for being frustrated. On the other hand, Alison’s script works perfectly – it names the problem and leaves a clear opening to deal with it constructively.

        3. bonkerballs*

          I don’t think we can come to that conclusion at all. We can conclude there are several people in the comment section that have GI issues. But I know I have no chronic GI issues and I have definitely eaten so much it has caused the symptoms OP’s employee has described. So…who gets to claim their experience is correct?

    5. Been there*

      I think Alison’s advice strikes a really great balance, and OP seems sympathetic that their employee could be suffering from an undiagnosed condition. I agree, commenters can be a bit callous. I am a sufferer of a chronic condition that I lived with for far too long before figuring out the treatments and lifestyle changes I needed. I also had a direct report who often took sick time or worked from home due to chronic conditions. I felt I was supportive as a manager, but there were a lot of snarky remarks from coworkers who felt she took a lot of sick days. That side of it, I wish I had managed better.

  18. Typical Lurker*

    I don’t want to hear from anyone at work while I’m on vacation, no exception. Not a puppy text. Nothing.

    1. Delphine*

      The other weekend a coworker who has been on holiday texted me to ask how things were going at work–just a casual conversation, but I can’t stand discussing anything work-related on weekends and vacations. I’m great at turning my work brain off as soon as I’m out of the office and I dearly wanted to tell the coworker that while I was happy to hear from them and chat I did not want to talk about anything even semi-work related.

  19. Stephanie*

    OP3, I am not a doctor ,but I agree with your layman’s assessment it might be a medical condition. I called in 4-5 days on year for what I thought was terrible gas. I did it the next year, only I ended in the ER, and discovered it was gallstones, not terrible gas.

    Maybe using Allison’s script, and mentioning “if it’s a medical condition” might tip your employee off that this isn’t normal over indulging of food, and lead her to get it checked out.

    1. JSPA*

      Something very similar here. Better to get “that’s not actually normal” from boss than end up in agony turning yellow and finally passing gallstone “dust” while trying to eat a literally zero fat diet for a month while waiting for the operation. Which in turn is better than a full on blockage and emergency operation. How this is relevant is that, if it’s a gallbladder thing, the frequency is a warning sign–and not getting it diagnosed can lead to a sudden emergency or rare but real fatal outcome.

  20. The Crazy Cat*

    Ooooo, the employee in letter #3 could well have been me in the years before I was (finally) diagnosed with IBS. The symptoms are identical. I couldn’t figure out what was making me sick–I thought it was eating too much also, but it wasn’t consistent, so I didn’t know to not ever eat a large meal. I had no idea it could have been a medical condition. I was pretty miserable. I was in the military and had to go to sick call any time I was too sick to work. Because we had to see a different doctor each time we went, they never put it together. Getting diagnosed in my early 30’s changed my life. Please encourage her to see a doctor to see if she has a condition to be diagnosed. With knowledge, it might be a manageable condition.

  21. Yellow Bird*

    #3 sounds like a cover-up for a chronic health condition like morbus crohn, colitis ulcerosa, IBS and the like. Not the best cover-up, mind you, because it makes her look irresponsible… it would be in her best interest to let the manager know if she has a health condition.

    1. Myrin*

      If it is a deliberate cover-up, it’s such a strange one, though, isn’t it? One would think that if she’s actively trying to cover up a food-related disease, she’d claim literally anything else (like, say, a headache) or just leave it at “I’m sick” and not go into details at all like she’s apparently doing.
      That’s the reason I’m really in favour of Alison’s script (with Hanna’s great addition above) since it’s very neutral and has a course of action for any possible reason for the employee’s call-outs.

  22. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    #OP – I’m so sorry this happened to you and your story is very common. I’m dealing with a similar situation, as are some other people I know (all women and minorities – what a coincidence). Here are some ideas that might help you:

    1. Remember that this is not your fault. You were doing the absolute best you could at the time. This can be a tough one, so get a friend to help remember you if necessary. Change the language you use about yourself, e.g., instead of “I was an awful employee”, say “I wasn’t able to work full time” or “I wasn’t able to be fully present”.

    2. Join a patient advocacy group. They could probably use your skills and people in those groups often help each other out in many ways. They’ll have advice and support for you.

    3. Volunteer work. If you’ve done volunteer work in the past or are doing it now, perhaps group that together to show you’re active in the community.

    4. Get a couple of friends to help you brainstorm ideas and list your skills and strengths. If you can see a careers counsellor, that could be helpful. (I haven’t had the best of luck with careers counsellors, to be honest, but other people have.)

    5. Alison is absolutely right about using your network. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can send an email to everyone and update them on your situation. People are often very happy to help once they know what’s going on. Even being added to someone’s LinkedIn can lead to something – the bigger your network, the better your chances.

    On a positive note, I believe the world is changing and for the better, and it’s why I really advise joining an advocacy group or something similar. I see people helping each other in lots of little ways that add up to so much. People trade food, clothes, information and services at a local level. They share their skills with each other and aren’t looking for anything in return other than help when it’s needed. A lot of people are feeling the same fears about the future, because it is scary, and that fear might not dissipate entirely (it certainly hasn’t for me). But seeing that there is another way of living helps so much. Yes, the dominant system is the one we’ve got, but people are quietly building a new system in their own spaces.

    I don’t have much more advice than this, but if you need someone to listen while you rant about the medical system, Alison is welcome to pass on my email address. The worst thing about situations like ours is that we feel alone and believe there’s no solution. Talking to others who understand – and who believe us – gives us the warmth and support we need to continue with our lives.

    Sending you all the good thoughts and strength, OP. You have a lot to offer this world, always remember that, and you are much, much more than a resume or work history.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        <3 This is a very hard world sometimes but helping each other out can make it easier to bear.

  23. Grand Mouse*

    OP #4- I don’t know what state you’re in but some places have vocational rehab! I (for better or worse) had obvious disabilities at an early age so it was something I recognized to deal with. Voc rehab gives you a skills assessment, gives you access to physical and mental health services that could improve your conditions, evaluates your abilities, and works with you on finding a job and offers additional training and schooling that could help you get it. My current job is one that was referred by my case manager- and they give preference to people with disabilities!

    Good luck!

    1. Thany*

      I was checking the comments to see if anyone else recommended Voc. Rehab. Please look into this OP! Also check your local area for agencies that support employment, like YB’s comment above. Sometimes there can be a lot of resources in the area that you might not be aware of. Good luck!

  24. Akcipitrokulo*

    OP2… I’d much prefer to get such a text than not! It isn’t a work “we need this…” it’s a “hey, i bet the team would like this!”. I don’t want to be cut out of that if I’m not in the office.

    1. Anononon*

      I agree with this. I would be happy I got the text. Not everyone is anti-social texts from work, so it’s definitely a “know your audience.”

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I don’t mind getting non-work texts from my coworkers while I’m away. It’s typically some funny meme or a picture of their pet after getting groomed.

      I’d be more concerned if OP said the boss was texting her employee with work questions. That’s not OK while someone is away.

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Absolutely agreed on the work texts. When you’re away, you’re away… maybe a once in a blue moon emergency “you’re the only one who knows this!!!” … but if that’s the case, what would you do if I wasn’t available?

        Funny memes tend to get sent to our work email though if we’re sharing amusing things.

  25. babblemouth*

    #2 I’m with you here. I’ve had moments of high stress at work when just seeing someone’s name popping in email or unread texts gave me anxiety and a horrible “oh god what now” moment. It didn’t matter if it was serious or not, and even a cute kitten picture would not help taking down my anxiety levels. However, not everyone knows how that feels, or how bad it can get, so your boss probably genuinely didn’t realize this could be a factor, even if he knew your employee was on holiday. A heads-up to him when your employees are on annual leave and they should be completely left alone is the best way to fix this.

  26. Not Today Satan*

    The thing about #3 is, if “eating too much” does make her ill in the way she says, she DOES have a medical condition. Whether it’s something we’ve heard of or something idiopathic (a surprising amount of diagnoses basically means Patient has These Symptoms But We Don’t Know Why), it’s still a medical condition.

    1. Birch*

      Yeah, but the medical condition is the symptoms, “eating too much” is the behavioural cause of those symptoms. That’s like saying you have a medical condition of having walked across the road at the same time as a car. No, you have a broken leg. That’s the medical condition. It’s a bizarre way to frame it, especially if it is a medical condition that she wants to avoid giving information about, which everyone here seems to be assuming. It prompts the question “why,” so the issue is, why is she framing it this way?

      1. Nita*

        Not necessarily. You know that feeling when you eat a perfectly normal meal, and then ten minutes later you start getting all kinds of awful feelings in your stomach – and then, after the fact, you think “maybe I ate too much!” I had that going on for a few months, it was caused by a minor medical condition, and it was a bit unpredictable when a meal would not agree with me. I mean, I could maybe prevent it by eating much less than I normally do, but that caused problems of its own.

        Anyway, my worst symptom was nasty stomach pain that went away in half an hour. What OP is describing sounds much worse. Eating too much doesn’t normally make one that ill, so yeah, could be a medical condition.

        1. Birch*

          It’s still TMI and irrelevant, and shows bad judgment to frame it that way, which is the real point. Nobody here is arguing that whatever it is is really happening or could really be due to a medical condition. She could easily say “I feel ill” or “I’ve got a stomach thing” and it gives the same amount of information while not begging the question or asking for any responsibility for a behaviour. It doesn’t really matter what the real story is, only that she needs a better calling-in-sick reason and it’s a bit weird that she’s voluntarily offering this as the excuse since as you said, with no other information, it’s not normally a reason to be ill.

  27. Troy*

    For OP 3 -It is possible that this is a medical condition. Not trying to diagnose anyone here, but I do have a family member with Gastroparesis and the symptoms you describe are exactly what they exhibited when they first started getting sick and it all came on very suddenly. They also thought it was just “eating too much,” but ultimately wasn’t. It’s possible your employee could be going through something similar. Once we realized that this was most definitely a medical issue and not from over eating, my family member’s employer was very good about giving them the time off they needed to seek medical attention (there were frequent ER visits, tons of medical tests and doctor’s appointments before everything got sorted out and under control), was flexible with their scheduled start time, and allowed them to work from home when possible. Obviously flexible schedules and working from home are not available with every job (It isn’t something I can do at my job for example), but if your employee is diagnosed with a medical condition these are things you may be able to do to help them out while they are learning to deal with their medical conditions.

  28. Tangurena*

    As for #3, I don’t know about the person, but I had complications from gall bladder removal (stuff got badly infected and they ultimately removed a good part of my pancreas). And I’ve had to basically relearn what I *may* eat. It took more than a year to recover. During that recovery period, I wasn’t very knowledgeable about what was going on (it turned out that the first year, I would get sick again if I ate more than about 7-9 grams of fat per meal, and ended up back in the hospital enough that they were recommending I find a hospice to go die at). In retrospect, I don’t think that the doctors/nurses did a good job explaining that I had to watch my fat intake or the details of how much my diet would have to change afterwards.

    Some of the symptoms would appear exactly as “ate too much” and would result in my intestinal tract just coming to a stop, like Gandalf saying “You shall not pass!”

    At my current job, they do know I had problems, but I’ve done a lot to figure them out on my own time. No more bacon cheeseburgers ever again. Also, no more PB&J.

  29. ElmyraDuff*

    OP 3 – Has she had any type of weight loss surgery? I had gastric bypass a couple of years ago, and if I eat too much, it’s definitely painful enough that I can’t work. It’s beyond your general Thanksgiving “oh, boy, I’m full” and straight up “I’m literally going to die if this doesn’t start digesting soon.”

  30. Jenna Maroney*

    OP3: Not trying to armchair diagnose– what you’re describing sounds very similar to what happened to me & my body before I was diagnosed with extreme blood sugar issues. I don’t know enough to know– is there a way of suggesting to an employee that they should go to their doctor that’s not a massive crossing of boundaries?

    1. Snark*

      There is really not. I feel pretty strongly that an employee’s health is not something for a boss to get prescriptive or even suggestive about.

      1. Observer*

        Generally that’s true. But in a case like this, it’s become the employer’s business. And the only other real option is punishing the the employee for the medical condition.

    2. Argh!*

      My reply to an employee who expected me to accommodate headaches (which of course are not provable) is that I am not required to make any accommodation unless their doctor & HR have instructed me to, and they will also instruct me in which accommodations I would have to make.

      Usually, at the time of hire, there’s a question about needing accommodation. So something is very wrong here.

      1. Jenna Maroney*

        Are they paid enough/given enough flexibility where they can get a diagnosis? That’s something worth considering, too. This is why you should pay people enough to afford preventative healthcare.

  31. Gaming Teapot*

    OP 4: Building on what was already recommended, for first job after awful history I highly recommend call center work of the inbound variety (customer support), for the following reasons:

    – It will bolster and highlight many transferable skills (quick thinking, problem solving, quick and successful establishing of good rapport with strangers, multi-tasking, extreme punctuality).
    – Most call center jobs pay like crap because you get a bonus on top of your salary, depending on how well you do (they record calls and listen in on X amount of them during the month). This bonus is also a good metric to demonstrate how valuable you actually were as an employee (“Consistently achieved highest possible bonus rating for excellent performance.”)
    – No remote work, which might sound like a disadvantage, but it also means that once you leave the office for the day, you are done. You don’t have to worry about managers trying to contact you after work. Basically, you need to be super-focused for 8-9 hours and then you can just chill and recharge. Very clear boundaries.
    – Depending on where you work and who the client is, you might even be able to polish your resume some more. For example, I worked in a call center, but our main client was a bank and those phone lines were where they assigned the really good employees too. Since the clients are all listed on the companies website, I could put it on my resume like this: 20xx-20xx: Customer Support for Big Famous Bank (Unknown Callcenter Company).
    – Many call centers specifically block any web pages that are not directly related to what you’re doing, so if you are a person who is easily distracted, this cuts down on opportunities for distractions.
    – For the long term: once you have had to deal with customer stupidity for a while, pretty much any drama you encounter in an office will seem like child’s play by comparison.

    Good luck!

    1. Nox*

      Most vendor call centers pay like crap. The ones that are in the states or are directly within the company are pretty decent benefits wise and stable and long tenure leads to other opportunities like WFM or QA.

      Not sure why call centers are not desirable- we have alot of opportunity for those who need it and are ready to work for it.

      1. Abyssal*

        Because they’re exhausting and stressful, and tend to expose people to a whole lot of verbal abuse from asswits? Not to mention how often the employers treat their call center employees like disposable units rather than people?

        1. Ego Chamber*

          All of this, plus being held accountable for things you can’t possibly control, schedules that are micromanaged down to 5-minute increments, lack of job security because of constantly-shifting metrics, little or no control over the schedule you work (although the weekly schedule is usually consistent for about 6 months or a year at a time depending on how often between schedule changes/team reassignments).

          The call center where I worked didn’t have QA in their building (it was ironically outsourced, despite all of the client’s actual call centers being in the US), work from home was a separate deal that required quitting from the site to apply for, and the names of clients were part of the NDA we all had to sign in the new hire paperwork, so not a lot of opportunity to discuss industry-specifics with future employers.

      2. Jenna Maroney*

        Do you have decent benefits? Treat your employees with respect? Any perks? At all? Opportunity is a very low bar to clear.

    2. FD*

      Hospitality can be good for this too. Pretty low barrier for entry, but if you want promotion opportunities, they tend to come much faster than in a lot of companies, both because of high turnover and because there are actually a LOT of management roles in hotels, much more than in restaurants. I’d probably suggest looking for ones that are run by a management company portfolio because those tend to be more likely to have decent benefits.

      1. Jenna Maroney*

        That industry on the whole has lousy pay & benefits. The tough part of the position OP4 is in is that the lowest level jobs tend to treat people the worst and offer the least in terms of pay & benefits– aka the exact things you need when you’re dealing with a depressing, exhausting chronic health issue.

        1. FD*

          I honestly think it depends! I worked in hospitality for several years, and it was an awesome springboard into my career. (This was a several years ago, but less than 10.) At that time, they paid $1-2/hr above the going rate for food service jobs, and the one that I worked at that was run by a management company had pretty good benefits. However, the one I worked at that was locally owned had lousy benefits and didn’t pay well.

          So definitely YMMV. I also was treated really well at the one that was run by a management company. In a lot of cases, a good way to guess if a hotel will be good to work at is to check their TripAdvisor scores–the top scoring hotels tend to be good to work at. (This is because generally speaking employees tend to treat their customers better and be more willing to go above and beyond if they themselves are being treated well.)

    3. LQ*

      I work at a government call center. For call center work it is extremely good pay. (It’s actually really decent and way over livable wage in our area (and nationally) in general not just “for call center work.) Plus state benefits, health insurance, pension, union, lalalala, it’s inbound, nearly everyone in leadership in our part comes up through the call center so lots and lots of promotion opportunities, we’ve got all kinds of laws and such. It’s really good call center work. (We do a horrible job of advertising the jobs though so you gotta look!)

      Call center doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

    4. desk blanket*

      All of this. It may not be the most “desirable” position, but I’ve traveled to my company’s vendor call centers to work in leadership there for a few months at a time. Would starting on the phones there be my dream job? No. Can it be toxic? Sure. But I’ve also met amazing people who worked there and were “starting over” after any number of life circumstances. The ones who worked hard and had passion were promoted and given opportunities to be team leads, trainers, and so on.

      OP may not even be interested in “moving up the ladder” but in finding something steady that has benefits and doesn’t require them to take work home. Honestly if I was in this position I’d choose call center work over retail or food service (personal choice of course). Lots of jobs can be soul-sucking. OP needs SOMETHING.

    5. Lucille2*

      This is a great suggestion. I know many people who have moved on to rewarding, fulfilling, and well-paying careers after a start in a call center, myself included. It can be done. There are a lot of naysayers among the comments, but it’s important to consider that the OP has limited options at this point. Getting in with an in-house customer support team vs. and outsourcer makes a huge difference in workplace culture. But if you need to get a start with an outsourcer and work your way into a company with more potential for upward mobility, then an outsourcer should be on the list of possibilities.

      And I fully agree, dealing with challenging customers prepares you for so many different kinds of workplace conflicts. My years in customer service helped prepare me to manage difficult client relationships. And trust me, when you burn an important client and risk losing their business, the consequences are far more severe than pissing off a single customer in a retail environment.

  32. MuseumChick*

    OP 3, others have mentioned it but I wanted to add another voice saying that this could be IBS or similar condition. What you describe sounds a lot like a friend of mine who has IBS and numerous food sensitivities.

  33. Anon From Here*

    I was going to suggest that OP#3’s employee maybe has a medical condition, but then I saw that Allison already mentioned that, and then that a dozen or more commenters did, too.

  34. Technical_Kitty*

    OP#4, you can also volunteer to bolster your resume. Having letters from volunteer heads describing you in good terms – especially work ethic and dependability may help when in an interview when explaining your work history. It does mean you need to look for volunteer opportunities and organizations that offer reference letters and have specific work roles that can be fulfilled this way.

  35. Inappropriate Metaphor*

    LW #4 I don’t have any specific advice for you, but I wanted to assure you that this CAN be overcome. 12 years ago I was where you are now: untreated mental health issues, just leaving an abusive relationship, never held a job for a year.

    In my case, a friend was willing to submit my resume to a large company for an entry-level position *with insurance*. I’ve been with the same company for 12 years and been promoted several times.

    I just wanted to let you know that it is possible. Good luck and I hope you have (or will) receive the treatment you need.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Thank you so much for sharing this. It can be really hard to believe that things will ever get better, and hearing a success story helps a lot. I’m so glad things are going well for you!

    2. LibraryMan*

      About 13 years ago I realized that my work history was aimless – and not stellar – and that I needed a *career*, not just a series of jobs.

      I went back to school and got my Master’s in Library Science, and now I’m management. My terrible behavior at fast food jobs (and factory jobs) doesn’t matter any more.

      The downside is that, in order to get this kind of career advance, I have had to accept that I’m never going to get rich, and that I’m not going to live in a large town. My last ten years have been in towns under 5,000 people. I’ve found that I like this, but it’s not for everyone (fortunately – that’s why I’m able to have the life I do!)

      But if I were looking for a change today, I’d go blue collar. Changing my attitude can make almost any job bearable, and every job’s going to have parts that aren’t fun. If you’re looking for money, the ability to pick your location, and the chance to “whitewash” your history, look to the trades.

  36. Rozefly*

    Regarding the over eating illness… I don’t know this, obviously, but as someone who suffers from it, my guess would be some form of eating disorder. My guess – would be bulimia.

    I’ve suffered with it for about 10 years, and in general it hasn’t caused me to have to take any time out sick (I am now addressing it finally, in counselling and I have signed up to a support group – sick of having this damned stupid illness ruling me relationship with food) – however this very week, i had a pretty overly indulgent weekend and when i got home I binged and purged… a lot (I am going through a particularly high stress period of my life, and I am disappointed that I have let my low mood overrule my willpower – hence the help seeking). The next morning the stabbing agony in my lower gut was blinding and kept happening periodically throughout the day, and I was dry heaving, despite there not being anything to bring up and me not trying to be sick at that time. I was sweating, but I was shivering and I had to work from home that day (I avoided a sick day, but couldn’t get up off my bathroom floor to get into the office).
    It sounds to me, that unless this woman IS just overeating and not knowing her own limits, she is highly likely to be suffering from some form of binge/ purge cycle.

    in terms of how to address that – if she isn’t ready to talk about it, she’ll be adept at lying about it and trying to address it with her (if she is bulimic) is likely to send her scuttling in the other direction, and be terrified of opening up to you, because you’ve ‘discovered’ her secret.

    Of course, this is all just a guess – but those behaviours and the frequency of it, barring another medical condition.. sounds awfully familiar to me.

    1. Snark*

      I don’t want to devalue the perspective you’ve given on bulimia, and I’m certain it wasn’t easy to write – but that said, Alison does have a policy against armchair diagnosis and speculation about facts not provided in the letter. Does speculation that she’s bulimic really help OP or change the advice we’re giving her? If so, how?

      1. Rozefly*

        Fair enough (first time commenting), defo not trying to armchair diagnose at all – its just symptoms I kind of recognise based on what was said. I could be completely wrong. I suppose it doesn’t really help the OP – other than giving her potential context… but then I wouldn’t really be sure of what the next steps would be, other than what other people have suggested; clarifying that she expects better attendance at her job unless there is some sort of medical condition they can make allowances for, perhaps with working from home/ flexitime.

      2. caryatis*

        I agree it sounds like bulimia or binge eating disorder. It changes the advice because it makes the behavior harder to avoid–she’s not just overindulging at a big event as most of us do at times, she’s binging routinely and cannot stop herself. Like any addiction. OP should be prepared to have this issue keep coming up as long as the employee is around–and consulting with an employment lawyer early may avoid headaches later.

    2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      That sounds immensely stressful. This internet stranger is proud of you for addressing it and getting support. Wishing you all the luck and sending good thoughts. You got this!

  37. Brett*

    #3
    How does the conversation change if it turns out the employee has an acute gastrointestinal disorder not covered by ADA and not requiring accommodation? (Particularly since the line between acute and chronic gastrointestinal disorders can simply be a matter of how many times it happens.)
    I could see an employee being wary of disclosing a medical condition that is not ADA or FMLA protected.

    1. Abyssal*

      If the employee is experiencing GI symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, then I’m not sure how that would be not covered, considering that those things tend to interfere pretty sharply with performing normal life functions…

    2. Argh!*

      “How does the conversation change if it turns out the employee has an acute gastrointestinal disorder not covered by ADA and not requiring accommodation?”

      The ADA requires *reasonable* accommodation. If it’s essential for the employee to be there on time and not to spend significant time in the bathroom, then the employer is not required to accommodate that.

      And even then, it would go through a doctor, who would presumably prefer to treat the condition rather than excuse it.

      1. McWhadden*

        “If it’s essential for the employee to be there on time and not to spend significant time in the bathroom,”

        No employer would ever have to give accommodations if they could take this line. If the disability is raised the employer still needs to have an interactive dialogue. And they need to propose accommodations that could work for both. (Work from home if feasible, flex hours, whatever.)

        1. McWhadden*

          Granted, of course, that they can ask for sufficient documentation to support the disability prior to the interactive dialogue. But if provided they have to have the interactive dialogue. They can’t just say “no that’s not reasonable.”

          1. Argh!*

            HR decides what’s reasonable when an official ADA request is made. If the request is “Allow Marykate to take unscheduled bathroom breaks for 30 minutes or more” that may or may not be “reasonable” depending on the job.

            If someone is a toll booth operator and they would be the only one on duty for hours at a time, regular attendance and not shutting down the toll booth would be essential job functions that intermittent FML or 30-minute disappearances would impact too much. You can’t have traffic piling up for 30 minutes on a toll road.

            If they are referees for Wimbledon, it’s not reasonable to allow an unscheduled potty break for 30 minutes in the middle of a match.

            But f the person is a data entry clerk and backlogs can briefly pile up or other workers could pitch in, then the employer is required to make an accommodation because to do so would be reasonable.

            The way ADA works is that the employer is required to accommodate a problem only when it’s been documented and only when it’s reasonable. When you talk about “interactive dialogue,” if it’s a legal case it’s between HR & the doctor.

            If it’s informal, it’s between the employee and the supervisor. If the employee disagrees about what is “reasonable” they have to go the official route, but the supervisor can decide what’s reasonable or not depending on their opinion. A supervisor can fire someone for misuse of leave, abandoning their work station, etc. Merely claiming to have an illness is no protection.

    3. McWhadden*

      If it is occurring this often it probably is covered. Something like the flu isn’t covered or norovirus. But if she is having regular flareups it would be.
      The 2009 Amendments to the ADA have made what is a coverable disability much more loose. It used to be a lot of fighting over whether something is a disability that impairs major life activities. But after 2009 there is a heavy leaning toward something being covered.

    4. JSPA*

      OP didn’t say much about their health coverage, and when it cuts in. If it’s not instantaneous, the employee could be white-knuckling a known problem that can be dealt with medically (but not until the insurance cuts in). This is relevant because the employee may not have a better option than what they’re currently doing.

      If the insurance is in place from day 1, the employee may be white-knuckling, not wanting to take time off for planned surgery so soon, on the presumption that the occasional bad day is less disruptive / looks better than taking off for surgery. This is relevant because the employee may be doing both the job and themselves a disservice by making those assumptions.

      A manager is unlikely to be able to move up the start date for coverage. But they might be able to signal that they don’t consider a scheduled absence to deal with a problem (whether that’s a week out for recovery from surgery or regularly taking an hour off to attend a support group or counseling) to be more problematic than the problem itself.

      So: “Most people’s bodies don’t prevent them from coming to work if they’ve eaten too much. Yours apparently does. Whether this is a medical issue or not, how can I support you in doing what you need to do, so that this issue does not interfere with work? Additionally, in case any chronic medical issue contributes to the problem, here are the steps someone would take to formally request accommodations. There’s a system to ensure that this can be done without any disclosure of your health details to me or to your coworkers, so your health privacy will remain secure.”

    5. Observer*

      It’s almost certainly not possible that this is not covered by ADA, as it’s definitely interfering with common life activities.

      In any case, it doesn’t matter. There is no rule that you cannot accommodate someone just because the ADA doesn’t require it. So, the OP is completely free to use the exact same script. That’s the decent thing to do. And if it’s done wisely, then it will build loyalty not just with this employee but others who see the employer treating people with decency.

    6. Close Bracket*

      ADA doesn’t cover specific illnesses. ADA covers things that interfere with basic life activities. There are a lot of nuances, but anything that significantly impacts your ability to engage in a typical lifestyle can be considered a disability. There are difference standards depending on what you need to be classified as disabled for, but ADA doesn’t have a huge burden of proof.

      I don’t know what you mean by “not requiring accommodation.” The employee obviously needs time off work, and providing time off work is an accommodation. If she didn’t need time off work, we wouldn’t be reading this letter in the first place.

      1. Argh!*

        The purpose of ADA is to enable the employee to do their job. It’s not a blanket excuse for letting people shirk their job duties.

        FMLA is about leave, not ADA.

  38. Rainbow Roses*

    #3. Posters are tossing out too many medical conditions to excuse this person. She probably *does* have a medical condition, but right now, she’s saying she ate too much and the OP has to take that as face value. It’s not her place to guess or diagnose her. Her job is making sure her department runs smoothly and employees doing their jobs.
    If it’s medical, this employee needs to seek a doctor’s help. Even if they can’t figure it out, she can at least tell her employers that she’s working with a doctor. Because right now, she simply sounds like a flake who just “eats too much” and called out 5 times in 3 months. Many places mean automatic termination without a doctor’s note after the 3rd time with the same reason.

    1. Argh!*

      Also, many workplaces have a probationary period during which an employee can be let go with less paperwork and fanfare if they’re not working out. Even with the ecnomy improving somewhat, in most fields it’s still a buyer’s market.

    2. Snark*

      *double high fives*

      Yes. The advice column fanfic isn’t helpful if the actionable takeaway is “be aware of this edge case as a possibility.”

    3. McWhadden*

      The employee is NOT just saying she ate too much. She’s giving a list of symptoms (vomiting etc.) in addition. While that may be TMI, it’s disingenuous to pretend the employee isn’t providing medical reasons for her absence. She saying a whole lot more than just eating too much.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        I agree, and I think that’s why people are sharing possibilities/information. These symptoms are way beyond eating too much. OP might be limited in how much they can say to the employee, but there’s nothing wrong with being at least aware that there’s something going on beyond eating too much.

          1. McWhadden*

            But people are claiming that all she has to go on is “eating too much” so any thought of medical issues are irrelevant. And that is not the case.

            1. Captain Planet (nee Snark)*

              Alison already accounted for possible health issues in her script. Which health issue it might possibly be IS irrelevant.

            2. bonkerballs*

              But it is irrelevant. The employee is saying those symptoms are the direct result of her eating too much. She’s not saying she has any of the multitude of medical conditions commenters here are supposing she has. It’s very possible she has a medical condition she doesn’t know about or isn’t disclosing. It’s also just as possible she doesn’t.

              So OP can be aware that a larger medical issue may be at play and be ready to accommodate such a thing if the employee tells her she needs it (and OP made very clear in her letter that she *is* aware of such a thing), but at this moment all she knows for sure is that the employee says she ate too much. So until the employee has said to OP “I have a medical condition and I need accommodations” all speculation about what medical condition the employee does or doesn’t have is irrelevant.

              1. McWhadden*

                The OP not going into this thinking “eating too much” is not a thing absolutely is imperative. Tone and demeanor completely change if they assume eating too much can’t possibly be a real medical issue.

                1. Myrin*

                  In all the examples mentioned where “eating too much” is a real medical issue, the eating itself isn’t really one, though. It’s just the catalyst for another medical issue to rear its head (like a removed gallbladder, for example).
                  And honestly, for Alison’s script to work, it’s only important that the OP is aware of the fact that there could be a medical issue at play – which she is, as per her letter; what kind of medical issue is entirely irrelevant, and I doubt her tone and demeanour are different depending on whether she assumes the employee has a condition which makes it hard for her to estimate how much food she can consume (i. e. ate too much) vs. bulimia vs. IBS.

                2. bonkerballs*

                  OP has already said, in their original letter, that they are well aware a larger medical issue may be at play, so I’m not sure why you’re so determined to respond to everyone as if she’s not. Her tone and demeanor aren’t going to completely change when she talks to the employee because she is already aware there may be a real medical issue.

                  But the OP going into this thinking it’s absolutely a medical issue, or even most likely a medical condition, isn’t at all helpful, especially when the employee herself hasn’t in any way claimed that it is. In fact, I find it pretty problematic for an employee to tell their employer something medically related (that she ate too much causing her to vomit and have diarrhea) and have their employer simply disbelieve them and start speculating about the “truth.” The employee has said she ate too much. The OP should treat the employee with the respect she deserves, take her at her word, and let her know that they need her to be more reliable about coming in.

              2. Jennifer Juniper*

                I’m guessing that “Stacia” is too embarrassed or ashamed to disclose her medical condition. People in the US have shame around digestive issues, as body functions are considered disgusting.

                1. bonkerballs*

                  I don’t think this really makes sense. She’s already giving OP details about vomiting and having diarrhea as opposed to simply saying “I don’t feel well” or “I have a stomach bug.” That doesn’t sound like someone shying away from discussing digestive issues.

    4. Myrin*

      Yeah, I’m shaking my head a little at many of the comments. Alison says that she doesn’t want people to get off-track by speculating about all of the employee’s possible health conditions, and what follows are dozens of comments sneakily trying to circumvent the “don’t armchair diagnose OPs” by saying “this sounds like the thing I have/my sister has/my best friend has” without any actionable advice resulting from that insight. You aren’t not armchair-diagnosing just because you don’t literally type the words “she could have illness XY”.

      1. Argh!*

        There’s no actual proof that these excuses are actually true.

        Alcoholism is a health condition, but employers are not required to retain someone who calls in sick with a hangover every Monday. Excessive use of leave is a fireable offense no matter what the cause. This is what FMLA is supposed to be for. Without that, LW can fire this person and look for someone more reliable.

    5. Close Bracket*

      She doesn’t sound like a flake who eats too much at all to me. She sounds exactly like someone who has a medical condition who doesn’t want to disclose personal and possibly embarrassing medical details to her boss.

      1. Rainbow Roses*

        That’s not going to help her keep her job. And she’s already revealing personal and embarrassing details to her boss. She’s just not saying it’s for a medical reasons, but because she ate too much. She could have said she had a cold or a migraine which *are* medical reasons even if it’s a lie. She can even say “I don’t know but this is happening. I’m seeking answers.” What company will keep accepting “I ate too much” for 5 absences every 3 months?

  39. Amber Rose*

    I feel like someone should at least counsel the “eats too much” person that her reason for calling out sick comes across the same as if she was calling out hungover because she drank too much the night before: like a personal choice that she made unwisely. My first instinct is to ask “well, why didn’t you eat less?”

    It’s probable that it’s a medical condition and the amount that is too much changes from day to day and is unpredictable or whatever, but that’s not how that sounds and it looks kind of bad on her to use that particular wording. Also falls under TMI. I don’t think her manager needs to know all her symptoms, just that she’s sick.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I wondered if she’d had gastric surgery. The side effects of overeating even a little bit with that can be disproportionately unpleasant.

      Which would still mean she needed to manage it better, but the line between “ok” and “ate too much” might be a lot finer that most of us would think.

  40. Temperance*

    LW4: I’m not sure if you’re in the US, but check in with the Office of Vocational Rehab. Alison’s advice is great, but this program might help you get on the path to success sooner, in a more efficient way.

  41. Argh!*

    Re: No. 3

    I have a low performer who has called in with some ridiculous excuses. After one particularly stupid one, demonstrating a lack of planning at home interfering with arrival at work, I said this: “Employees at any workplace are expected to organize their private lives in such a way as to allow them to come to work. This workplace is no exception.” This helped a bit, though now I get vague excuses rather than the true, probably lame excuses.

  42. Bea*

    #4 I’ve seen a lot of people have their second chance through the small manufacturing world. If up find an opening, it’s frequently only a clean background checked and even that is not always the case. You can work your way up and make good money if you’re reliable. We tend to want you to show us what you can do and rely less on your past. This means often a physical job which I don’t know if you’re able to do or not. Not always back breaking work, mostly standing and fiddling with parts or packing crates kind of tiresome repetitive motions. Extra training, unless offered by the employer is not helpful. I’ve seen most shop managers toss applications with degrees listed.

    1. blink14*

      Second this. My family owns a small factory, and most of the floor employees (who work with machines, packing, quality control etc) fall into one of these categories: recent immigrants, recently released felons, are unable to pass background checks due to criminal history, uneducated (no GED or high school diploma), or simply down on their luck and unable to find a job (heavily rural area). The foremen are looking for people who will work hard and won’t cause problems, like stealing and confrontations with other workers.

    2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Totally agree with this. I used to run a small specialized warehouse. I would take people with clean criminal records, reliable transportation, and rudimentary computer skills (as in they’ve seen one before and know what a computer is).

      My typical employee would leave the position with the following:
      -Basic to Intermediate computer skills (MS office, excel, use of scanners, navigation and shortcuts, basic SQL + knowledge, and other comparable skills)
      -Demonstrable achievements for resume building (processed X number of whats-its a day, Achieved 98% accuracy on task A, trained new hires on task B, used daily A,B, and C applications and tools, etc.)
      -Good references- We employed long term temps, and the local agency we worked with would (with our knowledge) give us some borderline temps (restarting, difficult circumstances, etc). We would generally give them a shot. If they worked out well with us and proved themselves, the agency would work with them for more permanent/long term positions if we didn’t have any to offer. We found all of our full time people from our temps, so if we were able to hire them…
      -Full time, clean environment, tuition reimbursement, generous health benefits, PTO, 401K, and potential for advancement.

      1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

        Sorry forgot to add… some real life examples of forward momentum that started as a warehouse worker.

        #1- Current job mid-level database manager
        #2- Inventory coordinator
        #3- Database Analyst
        #4- Field Specialist/installer
        #5- Clerk (union position)
        #6- Field Supervisor

        These are just the ones I could think of or know as fact. Most if not all of these jobs provided a $40-$80k/year job with full benefits. Who knows where all of the other temps we’ve had have been able to achieve.

  43. Hiring Mgr*

    On #3, while I agree you don’t need to diagnose her, if it were me I would say something along the lines of “being out sick so often just from overeating isn’t typical… have you talked to a doctor?” Something like that. Again, much of this would depend on your relationship with your reports in general. I think you want to approach it from a position of helping her while conveying the fact that she needs to be threr

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I agree and disagree with your script, I’ve said something along the lines of “Being out sick so often isn’t typical. Your attendance is affecting your job performance in a negative way. I don’t know the cause for these absences, however I would strongly suggest that you take some time to investigate the root cause and discuss with HR if FMLA or ADA accommodations are needed.”

      I never want to put myself in a position of making or verbalizing assumptions of the cause of an employee problem. I figure the best I can do is present the facts as it’s affecting their current position, be clear in the support/help that company (or I) can provide, and be crystal clear on potential consequences. It’s up to the employee (who I’m assuming is an adult) to manage their own health or other impacting situations.

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        Why is it massively overstepping? I have been managing for many years, the employees I work with are people not robots… I would thinnk it’s normal to inquire about their health if they’re constantly missing work for something like this

        1. Snark*

          Yes, but more in the format of, “If there’s anything you need my help to accomodate, please let me know,” not “have you talked to your doctor.” I would absolutely never feel comfortable asking a question that demanded they disclose a health decision to me; I would leave the opportunity open to disclose what they chose, or not, as they pleased. Because of course they’re people – people with their own business, and whether they go to the doctor ain’t my business.

          1. Argh!*

            When you offer an accommodation are you offering ways to make up time, work 10-hour days on the days they come in, etc.?

            If there isn’t anything that can be done that would be considered reasonable, no matter how nice you want to be, letting someone go because of attendance issues is definitely possible and happens every day.

        2. Argh!*

          I have asked an employee if they’re receiving care for migraines. There are treatments available, and besides using all his PTO, he was suffering. I suggested at least discussing FML with his doctor. Where I work, people can and have been fired for attendance issues. Merely telling a credible story on the phone is not sufficient protection against progressive discipline.

      2. Queen of the File*

        Is it the open-ended wording that is an overstep? Many of my employers have had the ability to ask for doctor’s notes when employees call in sick, especially chronically. I don’t agree with this practice most of the time but a boss asking an employee to visit a doctor would not be considered terribly out of line where I am.

        Maybe the difference is whether we’re looking at “I overate” as the cause of absence vs. “I can’t work because I am vomiting”?

  44. delphine from Belgium*

    In Belgium we have law protecting the employees against retaliation when they are involved in discussion with the employer.
    The employees delegates are very protected. And sometimes even a little too much (to the effect that they feel they can do anything without negative consequence or maybe it is only in my firm that one considers himself untouchable, and is feared by its hierarchy).

    1. Goya de la Mancha*

      I think the US has similar laws (I could be totally wrong on that). But if your employer is already breaking the law on certain things about your job that a union might be trying to change (ie: not paying overtime, safety standards, etc.) then I feel like they usually could care less about what other laws are in place to protect employees.

    2. Halmsh*

      We have those laws in the US too! But because the National Labor Relations Board (the body that oversees labor laws) is chronically backlogged (think multiple years of pending cases), one can’t expect action on Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) filings for quite some time. This means that usually it’s on the union and their supporters to make a big fuss publicly and put pressure on management that way.

  45. LadyPhoenix*

    #3: Allison’s script is pretty on the point.

    If she does have a medical problem, she should ask for accomadations. Unless the workplace is not accomadation-friendly, it is her responsibility to keep her ducks in a row. All OP is responsible for at this point is to inform her of the option.

    Once she does that, then they can talk about any further reaponsibilities.

    Otherwise, the only other option, is to not overeat—which may or may not be possible depending on if she has a condition.

    (Shrugs) There is nothing to go by except she eats too much atm with some side effects. And it is not OP’s job or her place to diagnose her employee.

  46. Sara without an H*

    OP#1: I haven’t read all of the threads upstream, so some of this may have been covered. But here goes:

    You don’t want to let down your bargaining unit, but you also need to care for yourself and your family. If you haven’t already done so, please start talking with your the rest of your negotiation team and your union higher-ups about your situation and about the fact that you may have to stand down for personal reasons. You can all use that time to identify and brief someone to take your place.

    Several upstream commenters have remarked on the importance of documenting your experiences (the drunken, but informative, management comments, etc.) Continue to do this, and encourage others to do the same.

    It sounds as though your organization is going through major cultural upheavals, so your plan to look for another job is probably a good one, no matter how the contract negotiations turn out. AAM’s archive has lots of good advice on this process.

    And please take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Join appropriate support groups, eat, rest, exercise. This advice is offered so often it begins to sound like a cliche, but it works.

    Best wishes, and please update us as things progress.

  47. gumby*

    #3 I agree with Alison’s advice and pretty much everything said in the comments. However, it’s concerning to me that you know how long her bathroom breaks are. Unless you’re working at a call center or some position that always requires coverage, I never understand why some managers pay attention to bathroom breaks. If her work isn’t getting done, address that. If she needs to be at work more, address that. But don’t address long bathroom breaks. That’s just…weird.

  48. workingforaliving*

    I have most of my intestines removed due to cancer. It’s very difficult to discuss how that affects me with my colleagues–I don’t even want to go into here because it is embarrassing to me. I think the suggestion for the manager is the right one–to simply state that it sounds as though the employee may have a medical condition, and there are ways we might be able to accommodate if we know more about what is needed.

  49. OP #4*

    OP #4 here, just wanting to clarify some stuff:
    1. She is the default around here, but I’m a guy. He/him, please.
    2. I’m both physically and mentally disabled. Call centers, lifting, and work that requires me to be on my feet for more than an hour are all no-go. Believe me, I’ve tried- that’s the reason my work history is Like That. Also, I *really* can’t drive, so Uber is out.
    My biggest problem is consistency: some days I can work, and work really well! Other days I’m basically a useless lump of pain and depression. It’s just about impossible to tell which is which until I wake up in the morning. Hence the absences and the falling asleep on the job.
    Oh, also- I’m still quite young.
    3. Right now I’m on Social Security, which… comes with its own set of benefits and challenges. I have insurance through it, I’m basically provided for. But the trouble is I can’t have more than $2000 worth of assets, and… well, since it’s needs-based, if I transition off to a crummy non-professional gig that pays minimum wage, I’ll lose my health insurance. Also, the whole ‘dignity’ thing.
    I’m a writer. I mostly do fiction and I’ve indie published some things. I also do commissions – but the big problem is, once again, consistency. I have this unfortunate tendency to push myself to the point of burnout and take a long time getting back to ‘normal’… and ‘burnout’ is really easy to get to.
    I’m *not* ready to start transitioning back to the workforce- it’s a long-term goal, easily years out- but with the climate around welfare the way it is, soon I might have no choice. So I figured I’d get some advice from AAM in the event that it does happen.
    4. Please stop screaming at Alison that she was not loud enough about capitalism being bad. I know this, you know this, we all know this, that wasn’t the question I asked. The question I asked was “in the system we’ve got now, how do I overcome this problem?” She answered the question beautifully. (Thanks, Alison!)
    5. To everyone who gave advice in the comments- thank you! There was some really good stuff in there. I hadn’t even thought to check out Voc Rehab! Web design, going back to school, and trades are all good ideas too.

    You guys rock.

    1. FD*

      Gotcha! And yeah, the way Social Security is set up is terrible that way, I’m sorry you’re dealing with it! I definitely think voc rehab is the way to start then, if you have a good one in your community. One thing they can often help with is ‘okay, these are the limitations I have, what sort of jobs could I possibly do?’, which can be really helpful!

    2. Song of Storms*

      One other thing to consider is that there are some organizations that specifically hire people with disabilities as part of their mission. Some such companies would kind of suck to work at (especially ones that pay their workers less than minimum wage), but others offer reasonable pay. I work for an organization like this – we do tech-related work. The pay is pretty decent and I really enjoy the work. They were perfectly happy to hire me on despite the huge gaps in my work history. They also will accommodate people who need reduced schedules or frequent sick time (we basically get unlimited unpaid time off if we need it). And I know that they work with some employees who are on Social Security (at the request of said employees) to make sure to only schedule them for a certain number of hours per month so they won’t go over the income limit, so they can work here part-time and still stay on Social Security.

      And I’m Nthing voc rehab – they helped me find this job in the first place.

    3. LGC*

      Wishing you the best of luck!

      Kind of like Song of Storms, I work at a community vocational rehab center. (I’m one of the supervisors now, in fact. Started from the bottom.) The agency I work for has a lot of businesses, but my department does office type work.

      The obvious disadvantage is twofold – we’re not very glamorous, and we don’t pay all that much (my department pays above state minimum wage, but below market for the kind of work we do). But on the flip side, we are pretty flexible and understanding, as long as you’re clear with us! (To my employees who might be reading this: that is why I can be insistent on documentation.)

      Plus, we have vocational counselors on staff. (Hell, we have job coaches as well!) Basically, we try to be a normal office with training wheels for the most part. (We’re not always successful, but we try.)

    4. Gloucesterina*

      OP #4 – you are clearly a writer! Those skills will be an asset as you’re working out your path to sustainable employment. Wishing you the best–

    5. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      I have this unfortunate tendency to push myself to the point of burnout and take a long time getting back to ‘normal’… and ‘burnout’ is really easy to get to.

      I know all about that.

      Thanks for the info and good luck! Please let us know how things go with you.

    6. Aline, sounds like ɑh-leen*

      OP #4: I didn’t have a chance to read all comments but I didn’t see this mentioned. Since you are a writer have you tried using sites like Fiverr? Upwork? or other online gig oriented services? I would suggest Fiverr first because as a newly listed freelancer your gigs have to start out at $5. So be very careful on the gigs you pick, start slow so you can get and keep top notch ratings. Read the rules about how income is tracked but it is almost at end of calendar year and if you start slow you shouldn’t be close to the $2K cutoff for 2018. To get around SS talk with an accountant or on Legalzoom about starting a company with it’s own separate tax number. There might be a way for any net income to go into a trust? or to retirement? without violating the $2K max at least until you transition back to full-time. Use your freelancing as an asset!

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