When it comes to promoting the interests of physically or mentally disabled workers, Elaine Chao talks a good game, the union that represents her agency's workers says. But her follow-through at her own Labor Department is another matter, adds American Federation of Government Employees Local 12, which represents DOL's workers. And it's not good.
The contradiction between the Bush Labor Secretary's actions and her words brought union demonstrators to their agency's front door on Nov. 17, trying to get attention from people coming to a ceremony honoring firms nationwide that employ the disabled.
"We're not disregarding the New Freedom Awards," said Charley Hodge, an attorney who is blind and who works in DOL's Solicitor's office, referring to the ceremony. "But her own damn department wouldn't qualify!"
DOL data sent to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show that in fiscal 2001, 1.19 percent of all DOL workers were disabled. Even more distressing, add Local 12 President Larry Drake, Vice President/grievance coordinator Alex Bastani and other unionists, is that a disproportionate number of workers whom DOL tried to fire -- and whom the union had to defend through grievances -- were disabled. That includes six of the last 10.
"You know something's not kosher" with a pattern like that, says Hodge. "There's a fish that stinks in Denmark."
And while DOL is supposed to be, in Chao's words, a "model" employer of people with disabilities, it isn't, unionists add. Once, DOL forced wheelchair-bound workers, who could easily perform tasks by computer from home on days where travel is impossible -- such as snowstorms -- to physically come in to work, said Local 12 Secretary David Richardson. When they can't come in, they take more sick leave and supervisors downgrade them for absenteeism, Bastani pointed out.
An employee had a mastectomy and when she returned to work -- disabled from the surgery -- DOL fired her even though it hadn't given her a performance rating in three years, he added.
"Chao loves to stand up and say we're promoting employment of the disabled," adds union President Drake. "But back here at the ranch, it's another story."