Balto. Co. Council Troubled by U.S. DOJ Disabilities Probe

… Olszewski says policies should be examined …

By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

11:09 PM EDT, September 29, 2011

Baltimore County Council members say they are troubled by a federal investigation into allegations that the county has violated workplace discrimination laws — a probe the council’s chairman says highlights long-standing concerns about how employees are treated.

Justice Department investigators have been looking into claims that the county government harassed employees with medical conditions and forced some out of their jobs, according to court documents and people involved in the cases.

Former employees have said the county refused to allow them to return to work despite improvements in their conditions.

“I don’t know how this investigation’s going to turn out, but at the end of the day, I think we have to take a hard look at our policy of how employees can or cannot be returned to work,” council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. said Thursday.

Olszewski, a Democrat from Dundalk, said council members “haven’t really been briefed on the investigation itself.”

But he added that he has “been concerned about this for a long time.”

The county has paid $625,000 in two separate cases filed by former employees over alleged workplace law violations, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has repeatedly found that the county violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“For me, it’s about hoping that we start having less rather than more of these cases, because we can’t afford to keep losing these kinds of cases and then having to put out taxpayers’ dollars,” Olszewski said.

The chairman said he would like to see how the county’s workplace policies compare to those of other local governments.

“I don’t know if there’s a whole lot the council can do,” he said. “Those decisions are made at the administrative level.”

The actions described in 10 EEOC complaints provided to The Baltimore Sun by one employee who complained and a lawyer for nine others are alleged to have taken place during the administration of former County Executive James T. Smith Jr. Smith has not returned messages seeking comment.

Don Mohler, the chief of staff to current County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said federal privacy laws prevented him from commenting on specific cases.

“We’re confident that we’ve followed not only the spirit but the letter of the law,” said Mohler, who also worked in the Smith administration.

“Decisions that we’ve made are about public safety … based upon comprehensive reports submitted by independent medical authorities.”

Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Democrat from Randallstown, said he was troubled by descriptions of the employees’ claims.

He questioned why doctors hired by the county allegedly determined that the employees couldn’t return to their jobs, even though other physicians had cleared them to work.

Councilman David Marks, a Republican from Perry Hall, said he thinks council members “should listen and learn.”

“From what I’ve observed, I personally have no evidence that there’s a systematic problem, and I certainly don’t think that any administration would condone these types of [actions],” he said. “But at the same time, the County Council has a role in questioning, scrutinizing whatever actions are taken by county agencies.”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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