Fired for falling asleep at work, Carver official wants job back

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2011 - 6:35 PM

The former building inspector claims he's disabled, on medicine and facing discrimination.

Raymond Williams

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Even Raymond Williams admits it: He slept for more than an hour in the lunchroom where he worked as a building inspector for the city of Carver.

Shortly after he woke up, he was confronted by his boss, who wanted an explanation.

It didn't fly. After serving a five-day suspension in March, Williams was fired.

But Williams is claiming to a federal employment agency that Carver discriminated against him because of a disability. He says that the medication he takes for rheumatoid arthritis made him unusually tired and that the city refused to accommodate his disability.

Disability advocates say cases like his could become more common as the workforce ages and as workers need medication for disabilities or other health conditions that worsen.

"This kind of case is not that unusual," said Pamela Hoopes, legal director of the Minnesota Disability Law Center.

Recent concern about sleeping on the job erupted amid reports of air traffic controllers sleeping on duty, leading to changes in work schedules.

Williams, 60, had worked for the southwest metro city since 2002. He said there had been no other sleeping incidents.

"I'm good at my job, but somebody seems to be after me for some reason," he said. "I don't know how this snowballed."

Carver city officials said the dismissal occurred for other reasons, including insubordination, violation of city policies, misrepresentations to the City Council, and use of city time and equipment for personal benefit.

"The city stands by its reasons for the employment actions taken and denies any wrongdoing," said Patricia Beety, an attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities, which is representing Carver.

Sleeping reported

On the morning of Jan. 14, Williams took his once-a-week injection of Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis. He said he has been taking it since 2006, often with side effects that include nausea, headache, fever, dizziness and fatigue. On this day the symptoms were more severe than usual, he said, and he wanted to go home.

But one of his co-workers was off, and the other needed to leave for an afternoon doctor's appointment. Williams said city policy requires his three-person department to have at least one worker in the office all day, so he felt obliged to stay at work.

Williams' salary is about $66,000, according to city officials. His job includes inspecting new and remodeled homes and other buildings to ensure that they meet codes. He also enforces zoning and other ordinances.

In an interview, Williams said he has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for almost 25 years. His hands and feet are visibly deformed because of the arthritis, but he said he has no problems getting around or completing paperwork. He previously held similar jobs for more than 20 years in Thief Rivers Falls and Deephaven.

Williams began work at 7 a.m. on Jan. 14, left to do a few inspections and returned to the office. With flexible break time, he decided to take an early lunch to rest. He fell asleep shortly after 10:30 a.m., and another worker reported it. Williams awoke about noon.

When confronted 30 minutes later by city Administrator Brent Mareck, Williams said, he admitted to sleeping and said he would work extra time that day to make up for it.

Mareck referred questions to Beety, who said she can't provide detailed answers because Williams filed a discrimination charge that could lead to a lawsuit.

Balancing act

Questions about medications and job performance can be tricky, said Cindy Held Tarshish, program manager of ADA Minnesota, an information and referral service for disability issues.

The Americans With Disabilities Act protects the disabled from discrimination in their jobs, she said. Employers must provide "reasonable accommodations" for workers who request them. Trying to work out such changes is required, as long as they don't impose "undue hardship" on the employer, she said.

"But it's not a free ride," Tarshish said. "ADA is not an entitlement program." Disabled workers still must do essential job functions with or without accommodations, she said.

Prior to the sleeping incident, Williams figured he could manage his symptoms without affecting his work. After he was reported, he said, the city failed to discuss how it could help him.

Forgotten moped

The city placed Williams on paid administrative leave, then imposed a five-day suspension without pay that began on March 7. It also directed him to undergo an "Independent Fitness for Duty Exam" by a city-paid physician.

Williams saw his own doctor, was diagnosed with sleep apnea and reported it to the city.

After serving his suspension, Williams said he got a letter from the city on March 11 saying that he had misrepresented his need to sleep on duty and had no medical condition that would require him to nap. The letter noted a recommendation to the City Council that Williams be fired.

Williams got an attorney and declined the city's offer to resign with severance pay.

On March 30 he received a letter from the city attorney saying he had violated a rule against storing personal property in city buildings. Williams said he brought a broken moped to work about five years ago to ask a co-worker if it could be repaired. He learned that it could not be fixed, left it in a shed and forgot about it until receiving the city's letter.

Williams was fired April 4. His attorney Tom Glennon said it's clear that Carver leaders were looking for any excuse to fire Williams. He said the city's actions amount to "transparent retaliation against Mr. Williams for having asserted his rights as a disabled employee."

On March 31, Williams filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC will likely take several months to look into the matter and perhaps investigate it.

Williams, who is married and has three grown children, said he feels embarrassed and ashamed. He said he simply wants his job back with the health benefits he needs.

"I'm not ready to retire yet," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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