Many of us have a long weekend now thanks to Labor Day, when we recognize the American workforce.
We'd like to recognize the many great people working hard for us in the Diabetes Community -- from advocates to endos and educators, researchers and scientists, to all the technology and device developers who are making a difference in how we live with this condition. (See also this light-hearted Ode to the Diabetes Workforce we've published before!)
Unfortunately, when it comes to mainstream employment and diabetes, things are not always rosy. Discrimination is a very real issue for many of us; we hear stories all the time of PWDs forced to combat stigma and discrimination where they work.
This includes employers reassigning or cutting down work duties because of baseless diabetes concerns to D-peeps who've actually been fired for minor blood sugar swings on the job. They're all tough to stomach, knowing that this disease is manageable and that people have achieved Olympic feats with it.
One story that stood out recently involved an Indianapolis woman with type 1 who had been fired from her job as a paramedic because of a couple of hypos, and eventually won a $223,500 jury award for wrongful termination.
A Paramedic's Cautionary Tale
Kristine Rednour, diagnosed with type 1 at age 12, was hired as a reserve paramedic in February 2009 for a county fire department about an hour east of Indianapolis, and a few months later hired on full-time. But in 2011, the department fired her because of a couple of hypoglycemic incidents, and told her she shouldn’t have been hired in the first place because of her type 1 diabetes, even though she’d disclosed it during the hiring process.
According to the federal suit filed in February 2013, Kristine experience two hypos while on duty in 2011 – once while she was driving, and again while she was taking care of a patient in the back of an ambulance. Neither were bad enough where she needed help treating the lows. In fact, both times she simply drank orange juice and Pepsi to raise her blood sugars.
After that second hypo, the lawsuit states that Kristine’s partner told her he didn’t want to be paired up with her anymore and she reported this to her supervisor. That’s when the fire department told her she couldn’t return to work without approval from the department’s medical director. That fire department doctor decided she could return to work the next month, but with limited job duties that meant she couldn’t drive departmental vehicles for 2-4 weeks until she tweaked her insulin doses.
She complied, and soon both the fire dept. doctor and her own endocrinologist decided that Kristine was fit to return to her full job duties. But in this case, the fire chief decided to fire her anyway.
Here’s what the termination letter said:
Your separation of employment is due to unsolicited discovery of medical events caused from your diabetes. The events were on duty, having a direct threat to you, your partner, assisting crews, patient care, and safety of the general public. Under ADA Title II, it is the Wayne Township Fire Department’s position not to cause undue financial and administrative burdens on other employees’ [sic], or the community. By doing so it would fundamentally alter the nature of our service, program, and activity’s [sic] being provided.
Yikes! Even though two doctors said she was OK to go back to work, and her own endo even said a CGM could be used if there was a specific need, she still lost her job!
That prompted the federal suit, and just this past month in early August, a jury ruled in Kristine’s favor after a four-day trial and three hours of deliberation. They awarded her $223,500 in the discrimination lawsuit overall, with $123,500 for lost wages and benefits and the extra $100,000 for emotional distress.
Talking It Out
Kristine's Indianapolis attorney Kevin Betz said that under the American Disabilities Act, employers are required to “engage in an interactive process” with covered employees about how they can be accommodated in the workplace. The fire department at trial argued Kristine hadn’t requested any accommodation, since she didn’t feel she needed that. But that argument didn’t hold up in court, and Kristine won the suit.
Betz says it comes down to having an ongoing dialogue between employer and employee, to figure out what might work. In this case, that didn’t happen.
According to attorneys and diabetes legal advocates, workplace employment law relating to disabilities determines that it’s first up to an employee or prospective employee to establish evidence of disability and qualification for the job, and then request an accommodation. The burden then shifts to the employer to either provide the accommodation, or show that an accommodation was unavailable or that it for any reason places an unreasonable requirement upon the employer.
In Kristine's case, the doctor did make recommendations for light duty and even a suggested CGM -- but the fire department chose to ignore that, instead firing her unnecessarily.
We personally know of at least one other colleague in the diabetes community who was fired from his job under similar circumstances: the employer knew of his diabetes, but after he experienced a couple of lows at work, he was handed his walking papers. No discussion, no accommodation.
The American Diabetes Association handles numerous cases like these each year, employing a whole team of legal advocates who are ready to help. They also offer a great online resource with information for employees and employers.
We face enough uncertainty as it is with diabetes, and as long as we’re doing what’s needed to take care of ourselves and work with employers, these situations shouldn’t happen.
Hopefully, cautionary tales like this one out of Indianapolis send a message to other employers: Think before you discriminate (or fire!), and be willing to make reasonable accommodations.
We hope Labor Day is a good one for all our gainfully employed friends in the Diabetes Community, and that the workforce is treating you decently!