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Sick Of Their Jobs

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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.

THE MESA POLICE DEPARTMENT hired Darryleen Kelley as a 911 operator in 1979. The Kansas native--who had moved to the Valley the year before--handled life-and-death calls as if she were born for the job. Her personnel jacket reveals numerous commendations, and her work earned her several merit-pay increases.

"Darryleen has been doing a fine job," her supervisor noted in a mid-1980s evaluation. "She seems to enjoy her work and shows a genuine concern for doing a good job." By 1987, that job called for Kelley to investigate obscene or threatening phone calls, and other nonfelonious crimes.

"I wasn't a sworn officer, and I didn't have the same degree of responsibility, thank God," she says. "I was investigating misdemeanors, and I got to be pretty good at it. They must have thought I was doing a good job because I never heard otherwise."
Late in 1987, however, Kelley suffered a personal tragedy when her mother died in a house fire. (Her father had also died in a fire when she was a youngster.) "I had a hard time after my mom died, and I did take time off," she says. "But it really was work and my friends that helped me get through it in one piece."

Kelley got married in February 1989, and her life seemed to be on the upswing, despite the nagging depression over her mother's death. Her yearly performance evaluation last May was a keeper. "She works hard to promote relationships of trust and respect," Kelley's sergeant wrote in part.

A week after her rave review, the chemical fumes overcame Kelley at the Mesa Police Department.

"I wasn't looking to get sick," she says. "But over that weekend, I started to feel extreme fatigue like I've never felt before. And as time went on, there's just no way to explain how bad it got. I couldn't walk from one end of my house to the other without practically collapsing."
Soon, she went to her family doctor, who couldn't pinpoint the exact cause of her illness, but advised her to stay out of work until she felt better. Kelley was convinced the culprit was the chemicals, and at first, no one argued with her.

Among the chemicals in use that day--a list was eventually supplied by the construction company--were more than a dozen that were potentially dangerous. Among them were potent cleaning solvents that can cause a susceptible person to become ill when inhaling them or upon contact.

Still, the city never tested Kelley for the chemicals.
Weeks later, Kelley returned to work part-time with the permission of her private physician. The department transferred her to the Falcon Field substation, where she continued her work as a police investigator.

Kelley still was feeling poorly, however, and she had to stay home from work almost as often as not. By now, Gates-McDonald--the firm that administers workers' compensation claims made by City of Mesa employees--was fighting her. On August 23, a claims representative informed Kelley that she'd suffered "no permanent disability" as a result of the June chemical stew. That was the same as telling her they didn't want her to continue on workers' compensation.

In early September, Kelley was ordered to undergo a physical by doctors under contract to Gates- McDonald. Not surprisingly, those insurance doctors denied that exposures to chemicals had caused the woman to get sick. But Kelley says they told her they couldn't test her for specific dangerous chemicals in her system, a claim confirmed by a copy of their diagnoses.

Dr. Walter O'Hayre concluded that Kelley's medical problems "are in no way related to the exposure in early June to the fumes of hydrocarbons being used around her workplace. None of these compounds was used in her workplace."

O'Hayre and another hired hand, Dr. Thomas Hartley, blamed Kelley's woes on smoking cigarettes and on depression caused by her mother's violent 1987 death. It was around this time that Kelley says she bumped into Bennie Gonzales and Tracey DeVore at a doctor's office.

"We hadn't really kept in touch," Kelley recalls, "though we all could have used the emotional support. We compared notes, and one of them had contacted a lawyer to look into bringing charges against the construction company. I thought that was a good idea, because it was their chemicals that got us sick. Those doctors never even tested me for anything--they were so sure I wasn't sick from chemicals."
In Bennie Gonzales' case, Dr. Hartley wrote that "the contractor's employees who were working day in and day out with the products in question here, using no protective equipment or clothing and no respiratory protection devices, were without apparent ill effects."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin