By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The Monday after Thanksgiving was a tough one for Tom Sapienza, a city sewer worker with a dying wife who had been patching together months of unpaid leave to care for her at home.
But the day was a good one for Jose Santiago, the former state representative who was about to come off months of unemployment.
After Sapienza’s leave stretched to five months during which his wife’s cancer spread from her lungs to her brain and became inoperable, Mayor William Lantigua fired him on Nov. 26 for ignoring a demand to return to work.
Nov. 26 was also the first day at work as a laborer in the Water and Sewer Department for Santiago, who had been Lantigua’s political mentor a decade ago, until their friendship turned to rivalry and Lantigua ousted Santiago from the statehouse seat he had held for two terms.
The two remained rivals since, although both declined to be interviewed for this story to determine if they are mending their differences as Lantigua begins campaigning for a second term. Lantigua did not return a message left with a secretary. During a lunchbreak at the city’s water treatment plant, Santiago responded to the request for an interview with a vulgarity.
Acting Public Works Commissioner John Isensee said Sapienza was let go only because his leave had gone on too long.
“There is no end in sight for Mr. Sapienza,” Isensee said yesterday. He said he was able to hold Sapienza’s job for him by filling it with a temporary employee, but said the practice “can go on for only so long.”
The pink slip ended Sapienza’s eight-year career with the Department of Public Works, which began in December 2002, when he was hired to drive snowplows and sanders in the winter and maintain Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in the warmer months. He was laid off for six months by former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2008, recalled six months later, and laid off again by Lantigua in July 2010.
Sapienza was recalled again in May 2012, but his return lasted only a few days as his wife’s cancer progressed. After running through his vacation, sick and leave time, he asked to be granted unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The request was denied because Sapienza gave up the job tenure required to get a leave under the act when he cashed in his retirement account while he was laid off.
Instead, the city granted him the string of unpaid leaves, which ran out Nov. 26.
Sapienza was at home in the small row house on Young Avenue he shares with his wife, Heather, on a recent morning, helping her spread cream cheese on a bagel. The task has become too intricate for her to do alone because of the damage the cancer has done to a frontal lobe of her brain, a center for cognitive abilities.
The two met in an Internet chat room in 2004. They married June 22, 2005, a date both of them have tattooed on their arms, inside a heart.
Tom Sapienza, 41, is long, lean and strapping. Wedding pictures on the walls of the couple’s tiny living room show Heather leaning on the chest of her much taller husband with bright eyes and a glowing smile, but on this morning she appeared pale and frail.
A seaman’s cap covered up the hair she lost during months of radiation and chemotherapy, which was stopped recently after her terminal diagnosis. Most of her speech also has been lost, along with her strength. She tried twice to lift herself from her chair at the kitchen table, stumbling both times. She said nothing as her husband spoke with a reporter, but wept quietly for a few moments when he talked about what’s ahead for them and described the betrayal he said he feels.
“I’d like the mayor to come to my house and sit on my couch and look at my wife and tell me why I don’t deserve a job,” Sapienza said. “After 10 years of employment with any employer, you’d expect some show of support for the families working for them.”
Ellen Shimer-Brenes, the lawyer Sapienza hired to help him get his job back and his leave re-extended, said Lantigua fired Sapienza to make way for Santiago.
“Tom Sapienza was the perfect scapegoat in this scenario,” Shimer-Brenes said. “He made the difficult decision to take no pay and leave his job, hoping to be able to return to it, to care for his terminally ill wife. What a perfect opportunity to offer the job to – an ally? Foe? Ally? I can’t keep track of it all – to offer Tom’s position for political gain.”
Sapienza’s job was initially filled by former DPW worker Jonell Oquendo, who was given a temporary appointment to when Sapienza went on leave in June. Oquendo left in November, as Santiago’s attempt to end his stint of unemployment and regain his statehouse seat flopped. He won just 14 percent of the vote against incumbent Rep. Marcos Devers.
Three weeks later, on the day Sapienza got a letter telling him he had lost his laborer’s job in the Sewer and Water Department, Lantigua approved hiring Santiago as a temporary employee for the same job, allowing the mayor to bypass a hiring process that begins with publicly posting positions.
Santiago is earning $15-an-hour, the minimum wage for the position. Sapienza earned $18 because of his extra qualifications, including a license to operate heavy machinery.
While he fights to regain his job, Sapienza said his Mass Health insurance won’t pay to move his wife to a hospice because she still has some mobility, although she walks with a cane. Regardless, he said he wants to care for her himself and at home, with twice a week support from visiting hospice nurses.
“The ultimate goal is her comfort, what makes her happy,” Sapienza said. “Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for it. All I can do is make sure that she’s happy during the time she has. If that means keeping her home and taking care of her as opposed to a nurse, then that’s what my wife gets.”