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Lawsuit Says City’s Sick-Leave Policy Breached Medical Privacy

February 11, 2008
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Police radio dispatchers in Columbus, Ohio, allege in a class-action lawsuit that the city illegally required them to disclose detailed medical information to supervisors to justify taking sick leave.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus in December on behalf of three former and two current radio operators, stems from the police department’s efforts to crack down on employees who abuse sick-leave policies. The lawsuit highlights the difficulties that arise when an employer must staff a service that operates continuously, often under stressful circumstances, revealing the delicate balance between protecting medical privacy and enforcing a sick-leave policy.

In its effort to curb abuse, the lawsuit alleges, the city erroneously labeled the plaintiffs as sick-leave abusers and then, in an effort to rein them in, required workers to send medical notes up the chain of command to their supervisor. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael DeWitt, says this policy is illegal.

“This information goes up the chain of command,” DeWitt says. “It doesn’t just go up to the benefits department, which can have this information.”

The lawsuit casts a wide legal net, alleging the city’s actions violate a number of federal laws and constitutional amendments, from the Family and Medical Leave Act to the First, Fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution. The plaintiffs allege that they were wrongly disciplined and defamed.

The city says it was simply enforcing the terms of the labor contract between the city and the radio dispatchers’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. According to DeWitt and a city attorney, Pam Gordon, the contract said that taking sick leave under certain circumstances—taking a sick day every Friday or taking a sick leave immediately after a holiday, for example—would automatically require employees to show their supervisor a note from a doctor detailing the medical condition that forced them to take off work.

“We have a collective bargaining agreement and that governs the city’s action,” Gordon says.

The police department has since changed its policy of sending medical notes up the chain of command to employees’ supervisors, Gordon says.

But for plaintiffs like Teresa Ruby, the change in policy came too late. Ruby says the stress of working as a police dispatcher harmed her health to the point where her doctor said she should not work beyond a normal eight-hour day. She used a broadly worded note from her doctor to take leave when she was asked to work overtime.

After being labeled a sick-leave abuser, she refused to detail to her supervisor the exact nature of her medical condition. She says she did not resist showing her detailed doctor’s note to her human resources manager.

She felt that specifying her condition to her supervisors would hurt her chances for promotion. In the lawsuit, her symptoms were described as stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation.

“I was up there long enough to hear them talk about other people,” says Ruby, who worked as a dispatcher for about 15 years. “There’s no confidentiality up there, none.”

Ruby, who was hired as a dispatcher in 1991, says she requested a transfer but her reputation as an employee who abused sick policy closed the doors to other city jobs.

After being suspended for 31 days without pay, Ruby quit. Eventually she found work as a clerk for the state of Ohio, earning half as much as she did as a radio dispatcher.

David Lefkow, a partner with Holland and Knight in Chicago, believes the collective bargaining agreement should guide the city’s actions.

He says supervisors may need guidance from human resource managers about how to best balance the needs of the employer with a person’s desire for privacy.

“The lesson for HR isi f you have a sick-leave policy, help your frontline supervisors understand it and implement it,” Lefkow says. “HR should be monitoring the frontline supervisors so they don’t get into situations that create these kinds of lawsuits.”

—Jeremy Smerd

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