Sick Of Their Jobs

Did toxic chemicals make life nauseating for three women at the Mesa Police Department?

The disgusting smell jolted Darryleen Kelley last June 1 when she arrived for work at the Mesa Police Department.

"I said to someone, `They must have found bugs as big as rats in here,'" recalls Kelley, an investigative assistant who had been with the East Valley department for a decade. "It smelled like insecticide, even though it wasn't. My eyes were burning, my throat was burning. I got pretty darned sick."
So sick, she left work later that morning. But it wasn't from bug spray. Chemicals were wafting through the cop shop when Kelley got to work.

Workers from a local contracting firm were continuing their extensive remodeling of the station. That morning, they were spray painting, gluing down carpet and using tile sealant.

Darryleen Kelley wasn't the only one affected that June morning. Mesa Police Department shift supervisor Bennie Gonzales was working near Kelley on the second floor when the fumes hit her. She, too, got sick and went home early.

About a dozen other Mesa employees became ill from the acrid fumes that day, complaining of headaches, eye and throat irritations and breathing difficulties. But while the others who had gotten sick from the chemicals soon recovered, Kelley and Gonzales didn't. Arizona's workers' compensation laws kicked in at that point, and the two women continued to get paid on industrial sick leave.

When they returned to work weeks later, the department transferred the pair from the main station to Mesa substations. The idea was to accommodate them so they wouldn't breathe in the fumes generated by the construction project.

Over the next months, however, the women reported a remarkable spate of other on-the-job chemical misadventures. Gonzales and longtime Mesa police employee Tracey DeVore said in August they had gotten sick at a crime lab from inhaling ethyl ether used in fingerprint analysis. Then, Kelley became ill again after inhaling what that time really was bug spray. And Gonzales lost more time after she breathed in lacquer paint. And so on and on.

By late last year, the City of Mesa's bosses had had enough. They fired Kelley and Gonzales--both highly rated workers with no history of malingering or excessive absenteeism before the June 1989 chemical incident. They demoted DeVore from shift supervisor to records clerk, noting that her allergic reaction to paint fumes had made it impossible for her to work for long periods at the main police building.

All three women appealed their cases. Last week, Kelley lost her appeal to the city's Personnel Board by a 4-0 vote. DeVore also lost her grievance appeal and has been forced to accept a pay cut of approximately 30 percent with her demotion. Gonzales has a hearing pending later this month.

To 42-year-old Darryleen Kelley, the past nine months have been as devastating emotionally as they have been physically and financially.

"I know not everyone is a big admirer of police departments," she says, "but I was very proud of working for the Mesa Police Department. I thought I was doin' something that mattered with an outfit that mattered, but I guess I wasn't. It wasn't like we were getting our hair and nails done when this thing happened. We were at work and we got sick. Shouldn't that matter?"
The fact that the women claim they got sick at work is what does matter. Their cases are classic struggles between the rights of workers and the needs of a business to get things done.

To R. Kelly Hocker, the Tempe-based lawyer for the three women, the story line goes like this: A callous, self-insured municipality illegally fires or demotes three productive, but newly handicapped, employees to protect itself from possible long-term medical costs.

To Mesa assistant city attorney Charles Hover III, it comes down to this: The women were good employees, and the city tried in vain to accommodate them after they got sick. But their "handicaps" kept them from doing their jobs, and the city had no choice but to fire or demote them. The punishment had nothing to do with potential long-term liability insurance problems.

What makes the situation at the Mesa Police Department somewhat slippery is that the women's grievances involve the relatively new field of chemical-related illness.

In the Mesa dispute, as in untold other cases of illness induced by exposure to dangerous chemicals, doctors cannot agree on what causes a person's medical troubles, or even on what those troubles really are. And they can't say precisely why one person gets sicker from a chemical than another person.

These days, doctors are still learning what everyday chemicals do to people. It is far from an exact science, even as 500 new compounds go into commercial use each year, according to the federal government.

Another aspect that makes the Mesa cases significant is that they turn on "reasonable accommodation." Reasonable accommodation--the lengths an employer should go to accommodate handicapped workers--is a hot issue in labor law these days.

Because they are eager to absolve Mesa of blame, and hence of the responsibility of accommodating the women, the city's doctors trace the women's medical problems to everything but their exposures to chemicals. Their illnesses are chronic bronchitis caused by cigarette smoking, the city doctors say, or depression caused by personal problems. Oddly, no one from the city has even officially raised the possibility that the women's woes are more psychosomatic than physical.

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