How did the Social Security Administration turn the cost of a hundred-dollar personal space heater for one employee into something nearly 90 times as expensive?

For some time, SSA had allowed a Benefits Authorizer to use a personal space heater on the job to help her deal with the disabling effects of Crohns disease. The disease was documented in her file.  At some point, management informed her that her space heater no longer met agency requirements and instructed her to buy a new one.  When she asked the agency to buy it given that she already had one, the agency refused alleging that it was personal-use equipment.

Rather than just purchase one as agency property and let her use it, SSA forced the woman to file a disability discrimination charge to get a resolution.  Once she did, SSA devoted substantial staff time to an investigation which found that none of the employee’s co-workers had ever witnessed the employee being limited by the disease.  Once the case got before the EEOC, the Commission decided that was irrelevant because disabilities do not have to be obvious to others.

SSA then argued that the employee performed satisfactorily once it blocked her use of her own space heater and therefore she did not need it.  However, EEOC was more impressed with the fact that the woman had to work in her coat and under a blanket to stay warm enough to avoid disabling inflammation and pain.

Management’s final defense was that even if the space heater was a reasonable accommodation it could not purchase a personal item for the use of one employee. In the end EEOC ruled that personal items can be reasonable accommodations that the agency must provide if they are needed to help the employee perform her job.  Given that there was no evidence that the employee took it home at night to use in her non-duty hours, the agency was guilty of disability discrimination.

EEOC ordered it to pay $8,987 in attorney fees and costs, purchase the space heater, train agency managers in their disability legal obligation and consider disciplining the manager who denied the accommodation.

You have to wonder what happened to SSA’s common sense. Rather than approach the situation in a problem-solving manner, it opted for the problem-enhancing mode.  Rather than show compassion for its own employee with this terrible disease, it showed confrontation.  Rather than get creative, it constricted its interpretation of regulations beyond all reason.

So, if you encounter a similar situation where management is denying an accommodation on the grounds that it will only be for a single employee’s personal use go looking for the EEOC case titled Hunter v. Social Security Administration, EEOC Appeal No. 0720070053 (February 2012).  And be sure to point out how management could have solved this problem for less than $100, but refused and turned it into well over 90 times that amount.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.
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