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Community kicks in when FMLA doesn't for same-sex couple

Carmen Cortese was diagnosed with advanced cancer, but her partner can't always be by her side when FMLA doesn't apply

Posted: May 26, 2013 - 12:01am

By MELISSA GRIFFITHS

JUNEAU EMPIRE

“The look on the doctor’s face was a sight to behold” Carmen Cortese said about when her cancer was discovered, only weeks ago, when she went to the doctor to get treated for what she thought was a bad case of bronchitis.

A chest x-ray revealed a tumor on her lungs and further testing showed the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. In Juneau, it was thought to be stage 4 cancer, caused by smoking the doctors said, though Cortese had quit smoking 13 years ago. In Seattle, where Cortese is being treated, they said with what Cortese thought was relief, that it was only stage 3b. Though one practically needs a set of flash cards to learn all the new terms that come along with a cancer diagnosis, the meaning is that Cortese will be in Seattle being treated with chemotherapy and radiation at least through July.

Only about a year ago, Cortese married her partner of five years, Janet Forbes, though their wedding is not recognized by the State of Alaska or the federal government. The couple have one another on their healthcare plans through the State, where Forbes is employed with the Department of Corrections, and where Cortese was employed with the Office of Children’s Services until her diagnosis, when she arranged to retire immediately — Cortese would be eligible for retirement under the State’s Tier I benefit system in September of this year. She is 56. Though their relationship is recognized for certain benefits, Forbes was denied her request for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (federal) and the Alaska Family Medical Leave Act.

Cortese said plainly, “I need Janet here with me.”

Already, dealing with various arrangements, paperwork and juggling appointments is a challenge, and Cortese said she knows things will be increasingly difficult as the treatments continue.

Why Forbes didn’t qualify for AKFMLA was confusing to them both and, it turns out, it is kind of confusing. Different State of Alaska employees have different contracts and some of them provide FMLA benefits for same-sex couples, while others don’t, Forbes said.

Forbes has been very happy with her employer, the Department of Corrections, for their support and flexibility in this trying time. She also expressed satisfaction with her interactions with her union representative, who said same-sex FMLA benefits had been on the bargaining table, but have not been enacted — at least not yet.

Forbes works seven days on and seven days off, so she has been able to travel to Seattle to be with Cortese during those days off, but she can’t take leave to be there long-term, leaving Cortese on her own when she needs the support of her partner, and leaving the couple in financial dire straits paying for flights back and forth between Juneau and Seattle.

“We went through our savings like that,” Forbes said.

Though Cortese is insured, there are a lot of expenses insurance doesn’t cover, including travel, transportation and living expenses. Though they have found a relatively low-cost housing option for Cortese’s treatment period that has a free shuttle to the University of Washington Medical Center, the costs are still proving difficult.

Forbes said it takes time for money to come through, from insurance or grants from groups like Juneau’s Cancer Connection, so the couple find themselves worrying about their drained bank account and mounting expenses.

That’s where the Juneau community is stepping up, hosting a benefit fundraiser event this afternoon at the Douglas United Methodist Church starting at 12:15 p.m.

Maureen Longworth and Lin Davis have been instrumental in organizing the fundraiser. Longworth wrote in an email that Cortese and Forbes are members of the Juneau Pride Chorus, along with Longworth and Davis and many others, and that the chorus will be performing at the event, as will other performers.

Longworth described Cortese as a “super volunteer, mom, grandmother (and) spouse extraordinaire,” and encourages Juneau residents to attend the event to help support the couple.

Donations can be made at the event, at any Wells Fargo bank to the Carmen Cortese Donation Account, or with airline miles, by calling Forbes at 957-7896.

Most everyone is affected by cancer at one point in life, whether personally or in someone close, so Cortese and Forbes both expressed dismay at the difficulties, financial and otherwise, that befall people.

Cortese said she was shocked to see so many rooms, whole buildings, dedicated to treatment of individuals with cancer, from kids to the elderly — and that’s just in Seattle, where many Juneau residents wind up when their medical needs can’t be met in Juneau.

In addition to making a donation to help defray costs like travel and accommodations during Cortese’s treatment, the couple and benefit organizers have said a helpful and important action would be to contact Alaska’s legislators, at the state or national level.

Longworth wrote in her email, “Contact President Obama, Senators Murkowski and Begich, and Rep. Young to extend FMLA to all families NOW” adding that the Maloney-Durbin Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act (HR 1751/S846) were recently reintroduced in congress. Longworth went on to encourage calling on local legislators Representatives Muñoz and Kerttula and Sen. Egan to end discrimination against LGBT families.

The program for the benefit for Cortese and Forbes, to be held at the Douglas United Methodist Church today, is:

12:15 p.m. - Hugs and Refreshments in Grant Hall (downstairs)

1 p.m. - Performances inSanctuary (Upstairs)

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

​Ariana Orford, Soloist; Laurell Clough accompanist

Welcome: Mo Longworth

“The Climb”

​Juneau Pride Chorus; Jacque Farnsworth, accompanist

“Amazing Grace”

Soloist and Piano: Steve Hamilton

Poem, “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

​Reading by Lin Davis

“Never Walk Alone”

​Margaret Vrolyk, Soloist; Jacque Farnsworth, accompanist

Blessings for Carmen and Janet

​By Pastor Cindy Roberts and congregation

Love Offering, Congregation

“Candle on the Water”

​Katrina Lee, Soloist; Jacque Farnsworth, accompanist

“Put on a Happy Face”

All sing along, ​Rachel and Sage Zahnd; Jacque Farnsworth, accompanist

Closing and Gratitude: Mo Longworth

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