Making It work

 A BUSINESS JOURNAL

Making it work

Disabled workers able to get the job done when employers address their needs

By Robyn Davis Sekula

Correspondent

December 23, 2005

In the 15 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers have found themselves handling a variety of workplace accommodations under the act.

At E.On U.S., the parent company of Louisville Gas & Electric Co., a lineman who has to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life requested an accommodation under the act. The company worked with his supervisor and his physicians to find a new kind of harness that he could wear that would not conflict with the colostomy bag but still keep him safe.

At United Parcel Service Inc., workers sometimes try to get out of the night shift by saying that for medical reasons, they can’t work at night. Many times, those workers’ requests are turned down.

PNC Bank has purchased larger chairs to accommodate obese workers as an accommodation under the act.

These are some of the more unusual examples of how the Americans with Disabilities Act has been applied at employers across Louisville. But they illustrate the breadth and depth of the law.

What’s unusual about the law compared with other kinds of civil rights legislation is that it requires that every case be treated differently, said attorney Tom Williams, a member of Ogden Newell & Welch PLLC.

Under ADA, each case has to be handled in its own way because every disability is not alike.

Williams said that even 15 years after its passage, some companies still are wary about the act.

“Employers are very concerned about a misstep with the ADA,” he said. “The law invites interpretation and gray areas. I tell employers if they develop and follow a good process, the courts will generally support their decisions.”

Accommodations usually aren't costly

Many employers interviewed for this story agreed that most accommodations are made for workers already employed by their companies, rather than those who were new, and that most accommodations are inexpensive, if not free.

Michael May, an applications engineer in the information technology department at Humana Inc., uses a wheelchair for mobility. He's worked at Humana for 17 years.

May said the only accommodations Humana has had to make included raising his desk by a few inches, accomplished with a few blocks of wood, and providing a covered parking space that allows him plenty of room to park his van and use its accompanying lift.

The company also offered him flexible hours because it takes him a little longer than other workers to get ready for work in the morning and drive to a company facility on Main Street in downtown Louisville from his home in Milltown, Ind.

But flexible work hours also are offered to other employees, he said.

Beyond that, May finds the occasional barrier in the office. He often will ask to have the barrier removed, and it's usually done within a matter of a few hours or less.

For example, the human resources department installed a telephone outside the department’s entrance last year for security purposes.

Associates wanting to visit someone in human resources have to call the person they want to see and ask the person to come and let them into the department, May said.

But the phone was placed too high, and May could not reach it. He complained to human resources, and it was moved later that day.

Cece Hallisey, director of human resources communications and policy for Humana, said her department counts on employees such as May to speak up when they find access problems.

“It’s a partnership,” Hallisey said. “We want to make sure our associates feel comfortable so they give us their best work. It's in our best interest to accommodate people as much as we can.”

An aging work force

Other employers agree with that idea.

Tony Bohn, vice president of human resources for Baptist Hospital East, said he finds the hospital makes more accommodations now than in the past and that officials reconsider some of the basic parts of hospital life to help employees stay with the company.

He said the hospital will try to work with employees who need shorter shifts as an accommodation under the law, and he thinks more employers need to get creative if they want to maintain their work force in the future.

“Because we have an aging population in this country, we are beginning to see more and more (need for accommodations) in our work -- in people who already work for us,” Bohn said. “We are an aging work force in this country, and we are going to be looking more and more often at how we accommodate people.”

But, he said, no business should sacrifice safety. The hospital makes accommodations for employees, but sometimes, if their health deteriorates, the hospital has to either find another position for the person or let them go.

Bohn said the hospital can't put patients' safety at risk -- and that's the line employers should consider. For instance, a nurse must be able to see to provide safe patient care, Bohn said, but perhaps can be retrained for another job in which sight isn’t as critical.

“The hardest part is when you accommodate the disability but they continue to debilitate,” Bohn said.”It gets to a point where you can't accommodate them reasonably. Safety becomes an issue. It breaks your heart, and we try to make the landing as soft as possible.”

Processes that work

Many large employers have put processes in place that help the company meet the needs of the disabled who work for them.

Attorney Williams recommends a process that includes “communication with the employee on his or her condition, adequate and accurate medical information, and clear communication on the consequences to the employee's future employment,” Williams said. “Employers get in trouble when they make assumptions and jump to conclusions.”

At E.On U.S., the process starts with a worker asking a supervisor for an accommodation.

That supervisor goes to Barbara Hawkins, manager of health and safety, a registered nurse and certified disability management specialist for E.On.

Hawkins gets permission from the employee, in writing, to talk to the employee’s doctor and get information about exactly what the employee can and can’t do. Hawkins then works with the employee and the supervisor to find an accommodation.

Hawkins was involved in helping the lineman with the colostomy bag find the right fit in a safety belt for climbing polls. She said that was last year, and the employee still works for the company today.

“Particularly when you are looking at trying to keep a long-standing, highly trained employee such as the lineman, working effectively in a collaborative manner allowed that employee to get back to work,” Hawkins said. “It's those collaborative, creative approaches that give you the ideas and the best direction to work in.”

Hawkins was not able to provide statistics on how many accommodations the company has provided.

For its Worldport hub, UPS goes through a detailed process, asking employees who want an accommodation under ADA to explain why they need changes in their work, according to Brenda Blair, occupational health manager at Worldport.

That form then is reviewed by a committee, which sees about two requests a month.

Blair said about three people typically meet to consider the applications, and other people, such as representatives from the legal or labor departments, join the meetings as needed.

If an accommodation is granted, the employee has a meeting with his or her manager, a representative from human resources and someone from the employee's union, if appropriate. The person then is notified of the group's decision.

Blair said she recognizes the difficulty of the process, but she says it has to be done to ensure that employees don't abuse the system.

Few employees want to work a night shift, and allowing anyone who complains under ADA about night work to change shifts would make it difficult for the company to keep a night crew in place.

It’s also important for UPS to know specifically what difficulties employees have so the company can meet all of their needs.

“It's hard for our medical community to take the time to complete the paperwork like you would like to see it completed,” Blair said. “They might just say it’s diabetes, but not say where there are problems, when in fact that person may have a lot of problems, like vision impairment or circulatory impairment, but you don’t have that information.

“There are times when we ask that physician a specific question,” she said. “That lengthens the process, but you have to do that.”

Getting a job

Part of the point of the ADA was to prohibit discrimination against the disabled in hiring, and employers who have made accommodations for disabled employees sometimes find themselves gaining some of their most valuable workers.

Craig Friedman, financial sales consultant at the downtown Louisville branch of PNC Bank, cannot hear without the use of hearing aids.

He has worked in sales at the bank for five years and has almost always been among the top four salespeople in his territory, earning a spot in the bank's Circle of Excellence and trips to other cities.

But after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in business administration and finance in 1989, he could not get a job in banking. Every year for 10 years, he applied to every bank in Louisville, just looking for some bank to give him a chance, Friedman said.

He worked through a series of other jobs, selling insurance, managing grocery stories and even telephone sales before PNC hired him.

Friedman doesn't think of himself as disabled. In fact, he's trying to learn Spanish so he can help more kinds of customers. If customers notice any kind of disability, they don't indicate it, Friedman said. The only accommodation he has needed is an amplifier on his phone.

He's just happy that someone finally gave him a chance, Americans with Disabilities Act or no.

“I was thrilled,” Friedman said. “This is the best career I've ever had and the most amount of money I've ever made. PNC is one of the best places I've ever worked. We have a great team of people here, and it's like one, big family.”

Karen Hazelwood, vice president of human resources for PNC Bank, said Friedman’s story is one that displays the intent of the ADA: to help people who are disabled become productive members of society, both by helping them get jobs and stay in jobs.

“He's a real success story for us,” Hazelwood said. “All he wanted was a chance. I think that, too, is what this act is all about, is giving people a chance.”

Cutter Matlock, human resources director for Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, agrees with Hazelwood. He said he even thinks employers can gain some of their most loyal employees by hiring those whom others might have passed over.

For example, the park has hired blind associates for summer work, and officials have found that they can do nearly any job in the park with accommodations. Many return year after year.

“I don't think you have anything to lose from it,” Matlock said. “You have a market of potential employees who aren't given as much of a chance as others.”