The Scales of Justice
Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.
Frankie and Hector
“It’s a great day for the Irish!”
Whether they loved him or found him annoying, workers in the seafood and meat departments in the Better Harvest grocery store in Boston’s Back Bay knew the meaning of that booming morning greeting very well.
It declared that boisterous fish cleaner and erstwhile fish-counter salesman Frankie Burns was at work, and he wanted everybody to know it.
Despite his sometimes jarring presence, most people loved Frankie. Frankie knew seafood, having worked on his family’s cod boat when he was younger. Now, at 55, he provided a knowledge of local fish and shellfish that was an asset in a store catering to the Back Bay’s educated, prosperous consumers.
Barrel-chested, with forearms, shoulders and biceps solidly built from years of manual labor, Frankie cheerfully and proudly unloaded the tubs of hake, pollock and flounder sold by the market.
This May morning, though, would prove to be a wake-up call for the hard-living Frankie. As he had thousands of times before, Frankie hoisted a heavy tub of iced pollock up onto the fish-cutting counter. This time, though, his back gave out.
“Whoa,” Frankie said as he clutched his lower back, wincing at the piercing, unfamiliar pain there.
Testing revealed that Frankie had aggravated a chronic degenerative back condition. His claim was found to be compensable.
With 180 stores nationwide and close to $8 billion in sales, Better Harvest’s human resources department was well-versed in the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act that were enacted in 2008.
Following Better Harvest’s well-documented procedures, and at Frankie’s reluctant request, Back Bay store manager Gracie Walker granted Frankie an accommodation under the ADA.
For now, Frankie was done hoisting ice-filled fish tubs. The store would need to find another fish cutter as the heaviest thing Frankie would be permitted to lift would be paper-wrapped one pound cod fillets.
“Hey, a job’s a job,” Frankie said, as he hoisted a beer and a Fenway Frank with his brother Petey at a Sox game that summer.
Hector Velasquez was the fish cutter in Better Harvest’s Brentwood, Calif. store.
At 53, Hector’s idea of a good time was to go Zydeco dancing with his latest and greatest girlfriend Vera at the Puma Club in nearby Venice Beach.
That’s exactly what Hector was doing on a steaming hot California night during a performance of his favorite Zydeco band, the Vallejo Oyster Crackers. But Hector made a misstep due to a slippery combination of spilled beer and crushed peanut shells on the dance floor of the Puma Club.
Vera tumbled to the ground with Hector but popped right back up, adjusting her hair and skirt in the process. Hector wasn’t so lucky.
“Honey, are you hurt?” Vera said.
Hector, whose love of beer, fried seafood and tortillas had left him with a stout belly, tried to get up but couldn’t.
Another dancer, seeing Hector in distress, stopped Hector from trying to move.
“Stay still, man,” the Zydeco dancer said. “You might have really hurt yourself.”
Hector’s fellow dancer put his hand on Hector’s belly to still his movements and pushed a chair cushion under his head.
“Be still a minute, man, and breathe — breathe against the pain,” the Zydeco dancer said.
Hector looked up at the man thankfully and started to breathe more deeply, his beer belly rising and falling with each labored breath.
Hector couldn’t make it to work the following Monday and filed for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Hector rested for a few days, trying to dull the pain with Ibuprofen and light beer. Given that he wasn’t hurt at work, Hector didn’t go to a doctor, thinking he might end up bearing the cost of treatment that he couldn’t afford.
On the Thursday after his injury, Hector got a ride from a buddy and came back to work. Hector is self-medicating, taking unhealthy doses of Ibuprofen in an attempt to perform his job.
He barely made it through Thursday and Friday, depending on co-workers to cover for him. Over the weekend, home resting but still in substantial pain, Hector faced the music.
“There’s no way, man,” he said, looking at his bent-over body in the bathroom mirror.
“I gotta talk to somebody.”
The following Monday, Dave Wagner, the general manager of the Brentwood Better Harvest store, got a knock on his office door.
Being the GM of this store, with its affluent and demanding customer base, was no joke. Dave Wagner was one busy man.
“Hector, what’s up?” Dave said.
“I need to talk to you, Mr. Wagner. It’s my back. I hurt it bad the other night and I can’t do any lifting, not much anyway,” Hector said.
Dave did some rapid-fire mental calculations as he gestured Hector to a chair.
“Sit down Hector, sit down,” he said.
Hector moved slowly to sit down, telling Dave everything he needed to know about how badly Hector was hurting.
“I’ll tell you what Hector, I’ll tell you what,” Dave said, as memories of Better Harvest HR emails concerning the ADA flashed through his formidable memory.
“Hold on a sec,” Dave said and popped down at his desk. In two clicks and a couple of scrolls, Dave scanned some emails from HR.
“Reasonable accommodation” is the phrase that stuck in Dave’s mind as he rapidly scanned the emails.
“You don’t have to lift,” Dave said, turning back to Hector. “You can work the counter. How does that sound?”
Hector, although in substantial pain, brightened some.
“That sounds good Mr. Wagner, thank you,” Hector said. But Hector’s feeble attempts to stand up sent Dave a message.
“Talk to Marcus and tell him what I said and I’ll talk to him too,” Dave said, as Hector made his way out.
As Hector went off to find Marcus, the manager of the seafood department, Dave engaged in professional, removed reflection.
“We’ll see what’s reasonable. I’ll give it three months,” he said to himself, before his vibrating cellphone distracted him.
“Cripe,” the harried Dave said to himself, looking at the number and picking up his phone.
“Dave Wagner,” he said impatiently to whoever was on the line.
Three months came and went, and Dave had to make a call. Hector just wasn’t that strong on the counter.
You had to have serious customer service skills to handle Brentwood and Beverly Hills customers and Hector was flailing. Complaints about him were coming at Dave from all sides, customers, co-workers, you name it.
“Reasonable means reasonable,” Dave said to himself as, worn down with complaints about Hector’s customer service shortcomings, he moved to terminate him.
The Wheel Turns
After his firing, it didn’t take long for the befuddled Hector to hook up with a gifted, ambitious employment rights attorney, Lucia Yamamoto, a graduate of Berkeley Law and a passionate defender of workers’ rights.
This is how the pre-trial negotiations went between Yamamoto’s firm, The Workers’ Rights Center, and the firm that did defense work for Better Harvest’s employment liability carrier, Apex Insurance.
“Okay guys, this is an easy one,” Yamamoto said on the phone call with the Apex defense team.
“We don’t see it that way,” was the game response from Ed Kleindinst, the defense lead for Apex’s law firm, Kleindinst, Evans, Hale & Brown.
“Oh really?” Yamamoto said, her derision palpable.
“You got two guys, practically the same age. They’re both working the same job. I mean this is beautiful,” she said.
“You accommodate one guy, and he’s still got a job,” Yamamoto said.
“Your GM in the Boston store continues to accommodate him, according to widely disseminated company policy…,” she continued.
“I don’t think you’re in a position to know how widely disseminated it was,” Kleindinst responded.
“Like it matters,” Yamamoto shot back.
“The other guy, same company, you terminate after 90 days even though it’s not presenting an undue hardship to your business. Instead, he was terminated because the manager felt he had accommodated him for long enough, which runs contrary to the company policy,” Yamamoto says.
“Been there 20 years, married with four children. Never been disciplined in his working life. Hello? Are you guys still there?” she said.
“We’re here,” Kleindinst said, this time with a little less vigor, pushing the mute button and rolling his eyes at his co-counsel in one of the Kleindinst, Evans, Hale & Brown conference rooms.
One of the partners jotted a note on a sheet of paper and slid it in front of Kleindinst.
There was a pause — orchestrated on the part of both Yamamoto and Kleindinst.
“Well, you’re not saying anything,” Yamamoto said.
“Go on, please, counsel,” Kleindinst said.
“Oh I’ll go on, I could go on all day with this one,” Yamamoto said.
“Two million,” she said.
“Oh come on!” Kleindinst said.
“See you in court!” Yamamoto replied.
Kleindinst’s partner jerks his head at the sheet of paper, trying to focus Kleindinst.
“One million,” Kleindinst said.
“One and six or we go to court and no more of this,” Yamamoto said.
There is another pause.
“Gentlemen, are we done?” said Yamamoto.
Kleindinst looked at his co-counsel, who nodded and pulled back in his chair.
“Yes, we’re done,” Kleindinst said.
“I really, really don’t like her,” Kleindinst said to his partner after he hung up.
“Like it matters,” his partner said.
Risk & Insurance® partnered with Sedgwick to produce this scenario. Below are Sedgwick’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.
1. Medical review: Make sure you request and document medical reviews of any request for leave or accommodation under the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act as part of the overall interactive accommodation process.
2. Consistency: Different injured employees with debilitating chronic conditions should be treated with consistency under the Americans with Disabilities Act, regardless of whether their need for accommodation is due to a work-related injury, a non-occupational injury or illness or for another medical need.
3. Document, document, document: Companies need to make sure that standard procedures regarding leave or accommodation under the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act are in place, up to date and triggering interactive process review – as well as clearly communicated to employees. Companies also need to document that they have communicated changes to those policies in a comprehensive and timely manner. A robust information management platform is key to supporting the process and necessary documentation.
4. The leave option: Although the goal of ADA/ADAAA is to keep people at work and every effort should be made to meet an accommodation request, supervisors need to keep in mind that there may be cases where a workplace accommodation isn’t possible or advisable due to the significant hardship it would place on their business; time off from work may be the only option. Shoe-horning an employee into a task they are unfit for may do more harm than good.
5. Disabled means disabled: Under the law, even if a condition is “controlled” by medication or some other treatment method, a disability is still a disability. Be very careful not to treat someone with a chronic condition differently just because they’re asymptomatic.
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