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Disability Case Study

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Disability Issues in the Public Workplace

Eloise, a supervisor at the Federal Administration Agency (FAA), was faced with trying to ensure productivity when one of her workers became ill, and was not maintaining her level of work. Brenda, who had been a computer programmer for the Management Information Systems Support Division of the FAA for nine years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 1991. She left work immediately to have an operation and to start treatments. Brenda was supposed to return to work after the medical procedure so Eloise reached out to her in February. Brenda stated that she did not feel up to it, that she would continue to use her sick leave and would return in March. Seeing that Brenda would not be back in the near future, Eloise asked the other workers in the office to "pitch in" and help pick up the slack in work due to her absence. To entice one employee to pitch in, she upgraded his work status from a GS7 to a GS9 (which is what Brenda's status was) until Brenda returned. In March, Brenda could not return to work on her scheduled date and had her medical leave extended until she became better accustomed to the chemotherapy treatments.

Brenda returned to work on April 1st. She was apparently not up to speed and could not handle the work that was assigned to her. In addition, she stated that she needed some accommodations in order to stay at work. These accommodations included rest hours during the workday and the need to leave work early on certain days. Eloise allowed these accommodations. When Brenda started taking breaks and putting her feet up on her desk to relax, the other workers didn't seem to mind, and they would even try to be quiet around her. Brenda felt like the other workers had changed their attitude towards her and "freeze up when she came into the room." Eloise tried to explain that it would be natural for the others to feel uncomfortable around her and recommended that Brenda speak to Employee Counseling. Brenda refused and soon thereafter started to call in sick again. Even with Brenda's return, the other workers still had to continue doing her work. The worker that Eloise upgraded to a GS9 was returned to GS7 upon Brenda's return. He refused to do Brenda's work unless he was reinstated to GS9 status. When Brenda was at work, she didn't meet her deadlines and resentment started to grow in the office. There were resentments because Brenda didn't look sick and the other workers felt that she was just taking advantage of the situation.

During the summer, Brenda's attendance became spotty and tensions grew even higher because of her push-backed deadlines. Productivity began to suffer because of these missed deadlines and the overworking of the other employees. Brenda was out of sick time and the other employees even donated their leave time (25 days) to her through the Voluntary Leave Transfer Program. By October, Brenda had reached the end of her sick leave benefits and had finished her course of treatment, but she continued to miss work. Eloise called the personnel officer to get some advice.

The real problems that exist in this case in our viewpoint are the approach Eloise has taken to managing Brenda's absence in relationship to the other employees in the office and her one on one handling of Brenda's initial return to work after treatment of her illness. Eloise has taken a piecemeal approach in her attempt to make up for the loss of Brenda's productivity during her absence and then her reintegration into the office workforce on her return.

Upon first being informed by one of her subordinates, Brenda, that she would be out of work due to a diagnosis of breast cancer, Eloise, the supervisor in charge of her section took a very humanistic and natural approach to Brenda's situation. General statements of consolation and support by Brenda upon her learning of Eloise's health crisis ranged from "I'm so sorry .... don't worry about anything .... don't worry about a thing here .... whatever you want" to a statement she made to her two weeks after the surgery "everything's fine here, no problems at all." All of these statements of support by Eloise were surely genuine on her part, but may have been of poor choice from a management perspective based on the initial reactions and retorts made by Brenda. Supervisor Eloise in all her statements of support for Brenda never once received a positive statement of any kind in return from Brenda. Certain comments by Brenda should have been understood for the impending obstinacy that Eloise would confront as the situation developed over the year.

Eloise's initial statements after Brenda's sympathetic response upon learning the news of her illness should have been an omen for the supervisor to realize that she didn't exactly have a "team player" on board that was looking forward to a speedy recovery and a return to work to put the cancer behind her. Brenda signaled her unwillingness to return to work from the beginning by such comments as "I'll have to leave for a while - maybe a long while .... I don't know exactly when I'll be back .... God knows what'll happen to me." Additional statements made by Brenda should have alerted Eloise to the mental instability that was besetting her employee, evidently brought on by the trauma of her illness. Brenda's unwillingness to share with the office the nature of her illness added to a climate of suspicion they already had about the shy, quiet and friendless employee.

Statements made by Brenda in her phone call with Eloise two weeks after her surgery were the final clue for the supervisor to realize that Brenda would be out for a longer period of time than the normal convalescing cancer patient. Her self-pitying statements of feeling terrible and being in a lot of pain followed by combative statements about her agency's priorities in wanting her to return to work should have been the last time she (the supervisor) initiated a conversation with Brenda. Instead they continued to communicate and Eloise continued to extend her leave from the agency. When Brenda did return on an agreed date, she made complaints about how her work assignments were overwhelming. Eloise once again relented and gave her special dispensation to put her feet up on the desk and take extended breaks during the day. Over the next several weeks, Brenda's paranoia at work due to her physical and now mental impairment became a larger issue for her supervisor. Brenda started to accuse the rest of the staff of isolating her and treating her differently. At this point Eloise recommended Employee Counseling, which Brenda vehemently refused, saying all of

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