Client focus: Sheila

We had a little flashback to 1983 this week, when a client called with a story that seemed to come straight from those days of ignorance and intolerance.

Sheila works transporting passengers who need assistance, typically the elderly and disabled. When she started the job about six months ago, she hired a good family friend, Angela, to babysit her young children. But last week Sheila began to suspect that Angela might be mistreating her kids, so she fired her. Angela didn’t take kindly to losing her job, so she decided to make life difficult for Sheila.

Angela didn’t know that Sheila had HIV, but she did know that Sheila was getting housing assistance from a certain social service agency in Chicago. So she called that agency, pretending to need help, and asked how she could become eligible for services. The agency worker told her that she would have to be HIV-positive to qualify.

Angela then called Sheila’s supervisor Tom and told him that Sheila has AIDS.

Now, you would think that in 2009 Tom would have been properly trained to know that someone with HIV pushing people around an in wheelchairs poses no threat to anyone, and he would have told Angela to take a long walk off a short pier. Instead, he pulled Sheila aside that evening as she was clocking out from her shift. “Someone called today and told me you have AIDS,” he said. “Is this true?” Sheila said she didn’t know what he was talking about, so Tom went on. “If you have AIDS, it’s going to be a problem because you work with the disabled.” He told her that she would have to get an HIV test to prove she was not infected before she could return to work. He even confiscated her ID badge so that she could not get back into her office.

Sheila called us the next morning and talked to our whip-smart paralegal Steve Barrera. After listening to her story, he took a moment to pick his jaw up off the floor and then rolled up his sleeves. “What your supervisor did is completely illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he told her. Steve knew that mounting a formal legal challenge against her employer is typically a lengthy process; even contacting her employer’s attorney can take several days. So Steve decided that perhaps he could give Sheila the tools she needed to resolve this problem herself. “Tell Tom that you’ve talked to us,” he told her, “and that in our opinion his actions are illegal. Ask him to put his decision in writing, and ask him which company policy he was relying upon in barring you from work.” (We told you Steve was smart).

Sheila hung up, then called back 15 minutes later. She had followed Steve’s advice and confronted Tom. Tom called his boss, then told Sheila that she was correct, he had no right to bar her from work, and that she could return to her regular shift. Whammo, problem solved.

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