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PEP Feb. 2009
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Public Employee Press

Rename it:
Commission Against Human Rights

Paula Sanders, center, celebrates her arbitration victory with, from left, Rep Marianela Santana, Assistant General Counsel Alan Brown, Local 154 President Juan Fernandez and Professional Division Director Stephanie Velez.

A veteran worker at the City Commission on Human Rights, Paula Sanders has devoted her career to protecting civil rights and fighting discrimination.

Never did she think her own employer, whose mission is to uphold the city’s human rights law, would treat her unfairly. But she learned that no matter how noble their mission, employers sometimes lose their compassion when it comes to their own workers.

In 2006, Sanders stubbed a toe as she prepared to take care of her mother in New Jersey. In New Jersey, she visited the emergency room, where she was informed she broke her toe. Then Sanders saw her regular physican in New York, and he said that she had to stay off her feet for several weeks in order for her broken toe to heal.

Human Rights Specialists like Sanders spend a lot of time in the field investigating bias complaints, holding seminars on the human rights law, and working with landlords to ensure that property is accessible to people with disabilities.

However, like many commission employees, Sanders is also responsible for extensive administrative duties. So, she requested that the agency allow her to work full-time in the office while temporarily disabled.

Did the city agency charged with protecting people with disabilities accede to Sander’s request for “reasonable accommodation” for her temporary disability? No.

Sanders was hurt and outraged when the commission said she would have to stay at home while recuperating and use her sick leave for the time off. She took the issue to Juan Fernandez, president of Amalgamated Employees Local 154, and DC 37 Rep Marianela Santana, and the three worked together to file a grievance. Assistant General Counsel Alan Brown of the DC 37 Legal Dept. got involved when the matter went to arbitration.

The union charged CCHR with violating the citywide contract’s requirement that agencies accommodate workers with temporary disabilities by assigning them to modified duties. The arbitrator concurred that a reasonable accommodation was appropriate under the circumstances.

“Paula’s case is a very clear example of how the principle of reasonable accommodation addresses the best interests of both the employer and employee,” Brown said. “The city continues to have the service of the worker and our member is able to stay on the job and earn a living. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Ironically (and to the commission’s credit), as the grievance process dragged on for over two years, Sanders was promoted to deputy director of the commission’s Community Relations Bureau at its main office at 40 Rector St. in Manhattan.

As a result of the November arbitration award, the commission was required to credit Sanders with the sick days she used while out of work and to reimburse her for the pay she lost on three other days she was out after exhausting her sick leave.

“For us, the case was black and white,” Fernandez said. “A disability is a disability. And if you are temporarily disabled you have the right to be accommodated.”

Said Sanders: “As an employee of the agency that is supposed to enforce the city’s human rights law, I was not treated the same as other people protected by the commission. I had to file a grievance.”




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