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Out in the cold
After 27 years at Mass General, social worker Hope Cranska was abruptly laid off. The hospital calls it a simple case of downsizing, but evidence points to another explanation: age discrimination.

MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL Hospital would tell you that Hope Cranska is a casualty of today’s profit-driven health-care industry — one of hundreds of diligent and devoted professionals who lost their jobs during a decade of downsizing. Hope Cranska would tell you that her dismissal resulted from age discrimination, carried out under the pretext of hospital cutbacks. The story may sound like a they-said/she-said dispute. In many ways, though, it has come to epitomize the potential injustices faced by outspoken older employees in bottom-line American corporate culture.

The 64-year-old Cranska had worked almost her entire adult life at Mass General. But three decades’ worth of memories have been obscured by the events of one day: on September 11, 1995, 27 years into her tenure as a social worker there, Cranska sat across the desk from her supervisor, devastated by what she was hearing. She says that social-services-department director Evelyn Bonander sat in a chair and made eye contact. But her demeanor seemed cool and detached as she handed Cranska a piece of paper.

"She said to me, ‘There has to be downsizing. Partners is moving fast,’ " recalls Cranska, referring to the health-care conglomerate that, at the time, owned both Mass General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals. (Partners Healthcare Systems, as it’s known, has since grown into an empire of 18 hospitals and clinics in and around Boston.) Cranska felt her heart drop and her stomach tighten. "She said to me, ‘In your case, the only option is termination,’" adds the former employee, who was then ordered to visit the human-resources department. She walked off the hospital grounds that day, dazed and disheartened. She has never again set foot in the social-services department.

Nearly seven years later, Cranska has yet to shake the sense of betrayal that comes with what she calls "this lousy way to treat someone." The dismissal remains particularly painful because Cranska believes she was unfairly singled out by her supervisors. At the time of her layoff, she was the only social worker with managerial responsibilities to be so terminated. Yet she was also the only social worker not offered a lesser-paid position in the months following her layoff.

And so, in September 1996, Cranska sued Mass General in Suffolk Superior Court for age discrimination, retaliation, and malicious interference with her ability to find another hospital job. Mass General, the lawsuit alleges, didn’t fire Cranska because it needed to downsize. In actuality, it charges, she got canned because she was an older employee, earning a salary near the top of the pay scale, who also had a history of challenging her supervisors. For three years, her case wound its way through the court system. In December 1999, it went to trial — and ended when the jury awarded her $631,000. In a remarkable twist five months later, however, the trial judge threw out the verdict because one of the jury’s findings was inconsistent with its award of damages. The case has since moved to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, where it could remain stalled for another year.

Mass General administrators, meanwhile, have stood by their actions. They claim that Cranska was let go for no other reason than "financial exigencies." But Cranska says the decision to get rid of her "killed two birds with one stone." When hospital officials laid off the then-57-year-old social worker, they eliminated a well-paid employee with expensive benefits, including a pension, who was also known for her chutzpah and candor in speaking up about problems. "Saying that it was just about a need to restructure strikes me as an insult," she says today.

TO MEET Hope Cranska is to meet an anachronism, a throwback from another era, when company men and women, loyal to the core, populated the American workplace.

Situated in her cluttered, closet-like office at Children’s Hospital, where she now works part-time as a social worker, Cranska comes across as a serious, determined professional. Smartly dressed in a black skirt, white blouse, and black cardigan, she wears her short, blond hair styled as if modeling for the pages of Women’s Wear Daily. She still refers to Mass General Hospital the way insiders do — "the General," as in, "Did you hear about the big surgery that took place at the General the other day?" And when she talks about the hospital, she speaks with a reverence that betrays a fierce commitment to her former employer — one that continues to this day. "I’m still very fond of the place," Cranska says. "I miss it terribly."

This allegiance to "the General" has defined much of her adult life. Born in Moosup, Connecticut, a blue-collar mill town where her father owned a cotton-thread business, Cranska was the oldest of two children. She arrived in Boston in 1960, fresh from Brown University. Several years later, in 1964, she landed a job at Mass General as a "play lady," as it was rather patronizingly called, in charge of the hospital’s activity room for children. Cranska took to the place instantly. "The General had an aura about it," she explains. "We all felt connected."

Cranska would spend nearly 30 years as an employee in those squat, red-brick buildings on Fruit Street. In 1965, after working two years in the playroom, she went back to school, inspired by a Mademoiselle article that named social work as one of the "best careers of the future" for aspiring professional women. After earning her degree from Simmons College, she returned to Mass General — this time, as a social worker. Over the years, she worked her way up the ladder, getting promoted from clinician to social-worker trainer to manager of a 12-person unit responsible for 300 patients. Cranska, who never married, wrapped her identity up in the hospital. To her, it wasn’t just a place to work; it was a place to participate in a vision. Its doctors didn’t just provide care; they performed miracles. "She lived by the General," says Lorie Kram, a close family friend who lives in Littleton and who has come to think of the hospital as "the General" as a result of her conversations with Cranska. "It was her affiliation." Another long-time colleague who knew Cranska at Mass General describes her as "so committed to that institution" that, whenever the hospital, say, pioneered a surgical procedure, "Hope would say, ‘We did this’ and ‘We did that.’" The hospital, she adds, "was her life."

This loyalty did not go unnoticed. Over the years, in job evaluation after job evaluation, her supervisors gushed over Cranska, calling her "honest," "hard-working," "dependable," and "a very solid, experienced, versatile clinician." Even after Bonander dismissed Cranska in September 1995, she wrote Cranska a glowing recommendation, dated October 2, 1995, in which she praised the seasoned social worker as "very dependable, loyal, and committed."

This commitment had been tested in 1989 by an intradepartmental conflict — one that would force Cranska to butt heads with her supervisors, laying the foundation of her reputation as a troublemaker. It began when Irene Rutchick, a fellow social worker who had worked at the hospital since 1970, took over as associate director and supervisor of Cranska and three other managers. At once, the arrangement concerned Cranska, who says the two "weren’t terribly compatible." "We were cordial to each other," she explains, "but that’s about it." Almost as soon as Rutchick became Cranska’s boss, politeness gave way to friction. According to court documents, in 1990, less than a year into Rutchick’s tenure as associate director, Cranska found herself facing a demotion when Rutchick threatened to strip away her supervisory duties. Rutchick, Cranska alleges, told her that "she wanted ‘new blood’ for the unit." Cranska sought help from top boss Bonander, who, in turn, put a stop to the action. And Cranska was not the only person to bump up against Rutchick; at the 1999 trial, at least one co-worker testified that Rutchick exhibited "poor interpersonal relations" with about a half-dozen of her subordinates.

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Issue Date: August 15 - 22, 2002
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