Restroom access case is costly to SSA

September 28, 2007|By Melissa Harris

A lot of people have done it - used the handicapped restroom stall at work when others were available. But the bad manners usually don't cost an employer thousands of dollars.

An administrative judge awarded a Social Security Administration employee who uses a wheelchair $6,500 in damages this year after nondisabled co-workers occupied the handicapped stall and caused the employee to urinate in his pants on three occasions.

The agency, Administrative Judge Laurence Gallagher ruled, discriminated against the Woodlawn-based worker by not doing enough to prevent the humiliation after he complained several times and resorted to bringing a change of clothes to work.

The agency has appealed Gallagher's decision to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and declined to comment on the case.

The complainant's manager did post several signs outside restrooms that included the universal symbol for the disabled - an individual in a wheelchair - and the words "Please be Considerate" above the symbol and "Persons with Disabilities Need Access to this Facility" below it.

The agency also showed a video to workers on being courteous to the disabled, but it did not address restroom etiquette.

Discrimination occurred because the agency did not instruct workers to "refrain from using the wheelchair-accessible stalls if they were not disabled, or did not have a compelling reason to do so," Gallagher wrote in a May 2006 bench decision. "That was the minimum that would have been required in this case, simply an e-mail or a directive memo addressed to the employees."

The worker's attorney, Phillip R. Kete, said that his client would knock on the door of the handicapped stall when it was in use and let the occupant know that he was waiting and could use only that stall. Depending on the urgency, the worker would then roll his wheelchair to another restroom.

"Usually, it would be empty. But sometimes it wouldn't be, and that's when accidents occurred," said Kete, who represents the agency's union.

The Sun is withholding the name of the worker to avoid embarrassing him.

Barbara Pachter, an expert on business communication and author of the book New Rules @ Work, said that the judge's decision resulted from managers not being specific about the problem and its effect.

"You have to tell people that what they're doing is wrong," she said. "Tell them, `Because you are using the handicap stall, someone was unable to use it and had an accident.' Unless you do that, it doesn't dawn on them that when they're using [the stall], they're causing a real problem."

Although Gallagher's damage award decision in April cited a few cases in which managers put disabled workers in environments without any handicap-accessible stalls, an advocate for the disabled and a business etiquette expert said they had never heard of a case about access to an existing stall.

"I don't know of any case like this, but I do know that people with disabilities face a myriad of barriers to employment, many of which could be very easily removed with simple adjustments," said Virginia Knowlton, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center.

But Ann Marie Sabath, who owns a corporate etiquette training firm, said that no faux pas was committed.

"If a nondisabled person sees a disabled person waiting or coming down the hall and still goes into the handicapped stall, well that's unacceptable and rude," she said. "But other than that, all is fair in love and war and your choice of restroom stalls."

Sabath, for instance, said she frequently uses handicap stalls when she's alone in an airport - so that she can keep her luggage with her.

"I have a book called One Minute Manners, Quick Answers to the Most Awkward Situations You'll Ever Find At Work, and if I would have known about this, it would have been in there," she said.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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