What happens when the challenges of managing an illness such as diabetes comes up against the challenges of managing a business, when the needs of an employee with a medical condition conflict in some measure with the needs of an employer to operate their business in a safe and cost-efficient manner? One would think that, in the early part of the 21st century, the law might lend some clarity to such issues. One would be wrong.
From the New York Times:
MINNEAPOLIS â€” John Steigauf spent more than a decade fiddling with the innards of those huge United Parcel Service trucks until an icy day two years ago when the company put him on leave from his mechanicâ€™s job. A supervisor escorted him off the premises.
His work was good. He hadnâ€™t socked the boss or embezzled money. It had to do with what was inside him: diabetes.
U.P.S. framed it as a safety issue: Mr. Steigaufâ€™s blood sugar might suddenly plummet while he tested a truck, causing him to slam into someone.
Mr. Steigauf considered it discrimination, a taint that diabetes can carry. â€œI was regarded as a damaged piece of meat,â€? he said. â€œIt was like, â€˜Youâ€™re one of those, and we canâ€™t have one of those.â€™ â€?
With 21 million American diabetics, disputes like this have increasingly rippled through the workplace:
Â¶A mortgage loan officer in Oregon was denied permission to eat at her desk to stanch her sugar fluctuations, and eventually was fired.
Â¶A Sears lingerie saleswoman in Illinois with nerve damage in her leg quit after being told she could not cut through a stockroom to reach her department.
Â¶A worker at a candy company in Wisconsin was fired after asking where he could dispose of his insulin needles.
In each instance, diabetics contend that they are being blocked by their employers from the near-normal lives their doctors say are possible. But the companies say they are struggling, too, with confusion about whether diabetes is a legitimate disability and with concern about whether it is overly expensive, hazardous and disruptive to accommodate the illness.
The debate will probably intensify. The number of diabetics in America swelled by 80 percent in the past decade. Experts say the disease is on its way to becoming a conspicuous fact of life in the nationâ€™s labor force, raising all sorts of issues for workers and managers. [full text]