Reasonable accommodation saves union member from firing

A Gloucester County EMT who had been injured on the job was almost fired recently, until Local 1085 forced the County to honor her rights under state and federal disability laws. Local President Rich Dann said the case should be a lesson to management and also to other employees about their legal rights.

Cheryl Laverty, who had worked more than six years for the County, suffered back injuries on the job in 2014. She received Workers’ Compensation benefits for several months, during which she was given various light-duty assignments. Eventually her County doctor found that she had reached maximum improvement and was permanently unable to meet the lifting requirements for her job as an EMT.

Although she requested transfers to other County jobs, management ignored her requests, then notified her in August that she would be terminated because of inability to perform her duties. President Dann agreed to represent her at the departmental hearing on September 8.

The primary issue at the hearing was whether the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination required the County to transfer Laverty as a “reasonable accommodation” for her disability.

A management attorney who specializes in discrimination cases argued for the County that there were no vacant positions currently available which the employee could fill. Management also pointed out that Laverty had mentioned only one specific position in her transfer request and that a different employee had been selected for that opening. However, Dann showed that there were a number of vacancies posted during the relevant time period and that Laverty was qualified for the positions. Dann also pointed to court cases and EEOC guidelines stating that management is required to search out vacancies and must offer an available position if the employee qualifies.

Three days after the hearing, the County sent Laverty a letter offering a choice of available positions. Laverty selected a position at the Division of Social Services and said she was thrilled to get the new job.

President Dann noted that there have been a number of fitness-for-duty cases recently. He recommended that employees who have problems on the job because of a disability should follow Laverty’s example by clearly requesting a reasonable accommodation and by contacting the union for assistance if needed. Ironically, the case arose just in time for National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is observed in October.