The month before she died, Latanya Jenkins got one step closer to a career-making promotion — the librarian’s version of tenure at Temple University.
It was an important moment for Jenkins this past March, getting the first round of approval for what they called “regular appointment.” Jenkins had another name for it: permanence. She was applying for permanence.
The achievement would come with a raise and job security, but equally important, it would be an acknowledgment of Jenkins’ service to the institution. It was the kind of acknowledgment she had come not to expect there.
At 45, she had spent more than a decade at the university. She taught students how to do research and helped professors access government records, while also speaking at conferences around the world and writing book chapters. Hers was not just a job, her friends said, but a calling. “It was what she was meant to be doing,” said her childhood best friend, Maraizu Onyenaka.
Despite that, during many of her years at Temple as her breast cancer worsened, Jenkins was forced to choose between her health and her job, said more than a dozen friends, coworkers, and family members. “They ran her into the ground,” said her mentee Fobazi Ettarh. Temple did that, coworkers said, with a sick-leave policy that starts disciplining workers once they use six sick days in a year — even though they get 10 paid sick days annually.
Those days roll over. So an employee could have dozens of sick days saved up, but it wouldn’t matter: Taking that sixth day kicks off a series of disciplinary actions that can escalate into a three-day unpaid suspension and, ultimately, firing. Temple’s employee manual cautions workers to “use sick days sparingly.”
Neither the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, nor Pennsylvania State University has a similar disciplinary policy.
It’s a tool Temple says it needs in order to manage “excessive use of time” and to ensure the institution has enough staff to operate.
“We have 6,500 employees,” said Sharon Boyle, Temple’s vice president of human resources. “We don’t have a lot of fat at Temple, we’re state-funded, we try to keep our costs low because access is important to us.”
Library workers say the policy has caused them to go to work sick or in pain, burdened parents of young children, and created a system where employees are at the mercy of their supervisors, who can choose to enforce the policy or look the other way.
As union members, librarians are not covered by Philadelphia’s paid sick-leave law, which makes it illegal to discipline employees for taking sick days earned under the law. But Temple’s sick-leave policy is more of an issue for librarians than professors, who are in the same bargaining unit, because they work 9-to-5 hours.
“Everybody thinks it’s ridiculous,” said librarian Leanne Finnigan, vice president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, which represents 2,500 faculty and staff, including about 50 who work 9 to 5. “It treats us like children.” The union tried to strike the policy in its most recent round of contract negotiations, in 2019, but was unsuccessful.
Boyle said Temple refused to strike the policy because “very few, if any” workers had been disciplined for violating it. She added that supervisors at the library “don’t make decisions in isolation” and that “a majority of our supervisors err on the side of leniency.”
Temple declined to comment on the specifics of Jenkins’ case but said, in a statement, The Inquirer’s reporting was “based on rumor and conjecture rather than fact.” “Situations like this are never easy, but we support how Latanya’s supervisors and the Temple University Libraries administration responded and worked with her through her illness,” the statement said.
Jenkins’ friends and coworkers, on the other hand, are left wondering: What if she had been given the time to heal?
“No one can know what could have happened if she had worked for a more caring organization,” Ettarh said.
When Jenkins was hired as the reference librarian for government information and Temple’s Africology and African American studies department in 2012, it marked a return for her.
She had done stints at two historically Black universities in Maryland and at Purdue University, where she was recruited to be part of its libraries’ inaugural diversity fellowship. But the Philadelphia area was home. She had grown up just across the river in Pennsauken, where her mother, a Trinidadian immigrant who worked at a nursing home, still lived, and she had worked as a library assistant at Temple after college. It was there that she decided to pursue her master’s in library science at Drexel.
Professors and library coworkers describe her as a tireless, devoted employee. She’d encourage professors to apply for grants she thought were a good fit, spend her free time helping to organize diversity symposiums, and mentor younger Black librarians in a field that’s overwhelmingly white. But after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Jenkins started running into trouble with the sick-leave policy.
She’d go in to work after chemotherapy, even if she was nauseated or fatigued, four coworkers said, because she had already taken too many sick days and was worried about getting more severe discipline. She couldn’t afford to lose her job — through which she got health insurance — and she didn’t want to. This was the career she had worked so hard for.
She’d commiserate with Ettarh, who also felt powerless in the face of the policy. Ettarh, who was on a librarian residency at Temple from 2015 to 2017, has sickle cell, a chronic disease that causes pain episodes, which would land her in the hospital for several days at a time. These episodes are exacerbated by factors like stress and weather, meaning that the harder Ettarh tried to push herself to go to work when she was in pain, the sicker she’d get, resulting in more frequent hospitalizations and more violations of the policy.
The two found themselves encouraging each other to just try to go in for a few hours, even if they felt so sick they could barely work, said Ettarh, who is now 31. They knew if they could make it in for just over half a day, it would take longer before the violations kicked in.
In the last years of Jenkins’ life, the sick-leave policy became less of a burden.
It was, in part, because she had gotten sicker. After a brief period of remission, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer — a terminal illness, for which treatment never ends. The cancer, which had spread to her spine, made it hard for her to walk, and for a time she used a cane. “I just want to walk without extreme pain,” she texted a friend in the fall of 2017. She moved back in with her mom in Pennsauken, so her mom could care for her.
She eventually was approved for intermittent Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, which meant she wouldn’t be disciplined for her absences. And in 2020, because of the pandemic, Temple paused enforcement of the sick-leave policy.
Still, three friends and coworkers said, when Jenkins was hospitalized earlier this year, her supervisor asked her to call in every morning to confirm she was still at the hospital. Her supervisor declined to comment.
Even though Jenkins knew she was dying, she was determined to submit her application for regular appointment, for permanence. Even if she needed a two-week extension because she had gotten COVID and her mother — her caretaker — was in the hospital. Even if she feared she wouldn’t get permanence because of her illness. She had started looking around for other jobs, just in case, because failing to get regular appointment leads to termination.
“All of that energy that she could have been spending fighting for her life,” Onyenaka said, “she spent fighting for her career.”
In April, Jenkins received the second round of approval for regular appointment, from the dean of libraries. None of her friends or coworkers who spoke to The Inquirer knew if she had found out about this next step. A week later she died.
For Ettarh, Jenkins’ death is symbolic of a larger problem with librarianship, with any kind of work that expects workers to “live and breathe their jobs,” to devote themselves so wholly that everything else, even your health, comes second.
”It’s just not fair,” she said, “the way we’re expected to put our whole beings into these institutions and they show time and time again that we’re all expendable.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.