Sick Of Their Jobs

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

Dr. Kendall Gerdes of Environmental Medicine Associates examined Kelley last October 5 for the first time. She complained of chronic fatigue, a sore throat, depression and other maladies. Doctors generally are loath to cite a specific exposure to a dangerous chemical as the sole reason for someone's illness. But Gerdes was as sympathetic toward Kelley as the city doctors had been unsympathetic. "Many of these symptoms seemed to be intensified or perhaps even initiated by exposures to a variety of inhalant chemical materials," Gerdes wrote last month. "If she was in an area which was essentially free of this type of exposure, there is an excellent chance that she could have functioned well."

Gerdes also made a discovery. Four months after Kelley's initial exposure to the chemicals, he detected in her body residues of Tolulene--a cleaning solvent for paint and coatings. He also found three other highly dangerous chemicals in her system, all of which can cause exactly the types of problems she was complaining about--exhaustion, sore throat, headaches, depression. According to OSHA Safety Data sheets, those chemicals may cause an exposed person to become highly sensitized to other poisonous compounds. That could explain why she got sick from the bug spray.

On October 24, Kelley asked the Mesa Police Department for a sixty- to ninety-day leave of absence for health reasons. She noted that her doctor had advised her not to work in the main police building for a year after the remodeling was completed--which it wasn't.

Kelley hired attorney Kelly Hocker, a former Washington, D.C., cop and a noted labor-law specialist, in early November.

"When a guy puts his life on the line for you, you just don't deny him anything," says Hocker, who has been doing workers' compensation cases for about three decades. "Then why do you toss someone out who has become handicapped by something that was the city's fault? They were in the line of duty in their way. That's what workers' compensation is all about. You don't throw away workers when they get hurt or sick."
Kelley's bosses responded December 1 to her request for a leave of absence. They fired her. She appealed, and at a grievance hearing that month she asked Police Chief Guy Meeks why she'd been canned.

"I have personally no knowledge of complaints about your work," Meeks replied. "My personal knowledge pertains about the attendance and the operational needs that we have.|.|.The only thing I can say to you is that we're not terminating you because of your work. It's because of your physical inability to be here and do that work."

"DOING A GOOD JOB will only carry you so far at the Mesa Police Department," says former Mesa detective Bill Richardson, who retired last year because of physical problems. "At some point, it's gonna depend on how much ass you kiss. None of the three girls--Darryleen, Tracey, or Bennie--are ass-kissers."
Richardson says the Mesa department, like many organizations, is riddled with what he calls "buds"--short for buddies.

"Buds are the ones who kiss up to the bosses and get away with anything," he says. "The unbuds are the ones on the outside. Those girls are unbuds. That's why this has happened to them."
But Kelly Hocker, the lawyer for the three women, says that Richardson--who refers to himself as an "unbud"--wasn't treated as badly by the Mesa department as his clients. Hocker wrote in a legal memo that Richardson and three other Mesa police employees, including former chief Len Kotsur, used more sick leave than Darryleen Kelley without being punished.

Former Mesa police lieutenant Richard "Catfish" Moore agrees with Bill Richardson about the "unbud" theory, and goes a step further.

"We've worked so hard in the City of Mesa at being efficient, that we're not able to operate worth a damn, if that makes any sense," says Moore, who retired two months ago after nearly two decades with the department. "In my opinion, those women were injured every bit in the line of duty as Sam Austin, our sergeant who got shot in the face a long time ago. They created a job for Sam, and they should have. And they should be able to adapt to the problems that these women have. But someone in the city got stubborn--I think that's what happened. And I think it stinks."
That's what attorney Kelly Hocker wants to hear.
"The City of Mesa retaliated against these ladies for using their workers' compensation rights," Hocker says. "I don't think the city was out to get anybody. I think it's a failure to understand the right of employees under the law. In this instance, efficiency prevailed over humanity."
Both Hocker and assistant Mesa city attorney Charlie Hover agree that what constitutes "reasonable accommodation" is central to the three women's cases.

"`Reasonable accommodation' is a tough issue because it's so emotional," Hover says. "You are dealing with good people that you have to take action against because it's the law. It becomes an us-against-them thing, with no happy solution. It's a balancing act that our managers and supervisors don't take lightly. But the bottom line is you've got to be able `reasonably' to do your job."
The three women have filed separate complaints against the City of Mesa with the Arizona Civil Rights Commission. Lawsuits, everyone agrees, are likely.

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