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 June 1, 1999

Mentally ill face workplace barriers

BOULDER — Listen, we’ve got a guy we think you’d like to hire.

He functions well in highly stressful environments. At the Daily Camera, he writes a column, religion stories, features and is books editor. Many hats, but then our guy can juggle.

His brain moves quickly, and he can hold a lot of information up there at one time. What interviews to do, what stories to write, what to think about next week, next month. All this with his telephone ringing, ringing, ringing.

He’ll win awards, which will reflect well on you, and readers will get attached to his personality. In short, he’ll help sell product.

Would you hire Boulder columnist Clay Evans?

Before you decide, there’s something else you should know.

About four times a year he’ll call in sick, and it won’t be a virus you can view under the microscope. You will see this coming, because he’ll have little facial ticks and make noises with his teeth. He’ll have trouble sitting still, will be too emphatic. He’ll feel such a blast of energy, he’ll wonder, wouldn’t it be great to dive off the roof of the building and see if I can fly?

Or he will get slammed. Killed. All the energy will be sucked away. He will spiral down to a place of such hopelessness that he will fully understand how depressed people come to contemplate suicide.

These two extremes will occur because Clay Evans is mentally ill. In 1994 he was diagnosed as having bipolar mood disorder, or, by the more descriptive term, manic depressive illness.

The National Institute of Health calls it a serious mental illness by either name. It is categorized with schizophrenia, severe depression, panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, all of which are definable as “physical” disorders. They affect about five million people, or less than 3 percent of the adult population. (Respiratory disorders affect 50 percent of adults.)

Now would you hire Clay Evans?

Maybe not. Research shows the likelihood a candidate will be hired drops substantially once that person is described to the employer as having a mental illness, although Boulder County employers may be better than the average. Nationwide about 15 percent of the seriously mentally ill are employed.

In Boulder County, the figure jumps to 30 percent, according to Dr. Richard Warner, medical director of the Mental Health Center of Boulder County Inc. He says that’s probably because of increased vocational rehabilitation efforts here and the existence of agencies such as the Chinook Clubhouse and the WATShop that help people with mental illness find jobs in the community.

While Boulder County may seem progressive, it’s not as progressive as Italy, according to the center’s research: Fifty percent of the people with schizophrenia in Bolagna, Italy, are employed, and 60 percent of the schizophrenics in Verona are employed. The difference? Italy has even greater efforts toward vocational rehabilitation, and the United States has severe disincentives built into its Social Security pension system. In Italy, if you receive disability income, you keep it even if you begin to work. Here, you begin to you lose money if you work.

“We’ve gotten so used to people with schizophrenia being unemployed, we think it’s part of the illness. But in fact it is part of the economic system,” Warner said.

The “earnings disregard,” or amount of money you’re allowed to earn before you lose your federal disability benefits, recently was upped from $500 to $700 a month. The earnings disregard for the blind, however, is already more than $1,000.

“So that’s a clear example of discrimination against other categories of disability, including the mentally ill — the largest category of recipients,” Warner said. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the severely mentally ill account for 25 percent of all federal disability payments.

Research by the Mental Health Center using computer modeling and a sample of more than 300 Boulder County residents with mental illness showed that an increase in the earnings disregard or a wage subsidy for people with mental illness would increase employment. The argument goes that people with mental illnesses would function better if they were employed, which could translate to a decline in the cost of treating them.

But the mentally ill need more than a wage subsidy to go to work. Myths still tend to hamper their access to employment, Warner and others say. One myth is that they don’t get better. NAMI shows the treatment success rate for people suffering from panic or bipolar disorders is 80 percent, compared with cardiovascular treatments, which have a success rate of 41 to 52 percent.

One persistent reality is that serious mental illnesses tend to be unpredictable, in contrast to developmental disabilities, which follow a known course. That’s why an inclusive employment policy is crucial to the workplace success of people with mental illnesses.

Clay Evans has worked for the Daily Camera since 1993 — a year before he was diagnosed. He says the paper’s policy toward his illness is progressive. “It’s no one’s business why you’re taking any day off,” he says. “You just have your pool of days.”

Disability law favors employers. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against qualified workers with disabilities, including those with mental illness. The law became effective for employers with 25 or more employees in 1992 and for employers with 15 or more employees in 1994.

From 1992 to 1997, 92 percent of the decided cases favored the employer, according to the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law. John Parry, director of the commission and editor-in-chief of the “Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter,´ said current data shows that could be closer to 94 percent now. “It’s not a major increase, but it certainly indicates that employees aren’t doing any better,” Parry said.

The employee must first prove he or she has a disability, “and the definition is quite rigorous,” he said. The employee also must show he or she is qualified, “that your disability isn’t so bad that you can’t perform the essential functions of your position.” A written job description works as evidence of what’s expected.

Most of the cases are won over the issue of whether the person actually has a disability, says Christopher Bell, an attorney formerly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “The courts have been very careful to hold plaintiffs to showing that they have an impairment that actually does substantially limit a major life activity,” he said.

Employees are protected if they request a leave when they are having problems, he said. That would be a reasonable accommodation unless it proved an undo hardship to the employer.

“The whole idea of the ADA is that the person with the disability has to be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. It is not a violation of the ADA to terminate an employee,´ said John Greer, an attorney with Hutchinson, Black and Cook LLC in Boulder who specializes in employment law. Still, Greer said, all employers need to take any allegation of discrimination seriously.

The Boulder County employers Greer has done business with typically have tried to accommodate employees to avoid litigation. And in the high-tech or biotech industries it is difficult to recruit and retain good employees, so most employers want to keep their employees.

“Most employers take a proactive approach and a fair approach not only because it is the law, but because they view their employees as contributors to the business,” he said.

An accommodation can be as simple as adjusting work schedules or modifying a work site, says Jayne MacArther, interim coordinator of the academic access and resources program in Disability Services at the University of Colorado. For example, if an employee is highly distractable — a condition related to the disability — the work site might be modified to minimize distractions.

Employers also can educate themselves about the disability, said Terri Bodhaine, director of CU Disability Services. They can talk to a medical doctor to get a better understanding of what goes into the diagnosis, what the medications are, what they do and possible side effects. Even so, some of the education is going to be done by the legal system, she said.

If an allegation of discrimination were to arise, the employee initially would file a complaint with an agency such as the EEOC, which, from 1992 to 1998, received 14,945 complaints. The number has been steadily increasing every year.

The agency would investigate the charge, then determine whether it had probable cause. Even if no probable cause is found, a lawsuit still can be filed. But Greer said in his experience, if no probable cause if found, most will not file a lawsuit. Neither the U.S. District Clerk of the Court nor the Boulder County Bar Association tracks the number of Title I lawsuits against Boulder County-based employers alleging discrimination because of an emotional or psychiatric disability.

Greer said it is detrimental to an employee to hide a disability from an employer if it is having a marked effect on his or her job performance, but that if there isn’t a problem, there is no reason to disclose a disability.

At times having such a disability may not be an issue. Ask Eileen Hinkle, 54, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Hinkle won an award for her mentoring efforts, which included an employee who happened to be bipolar. That was taken into consideration when the woman was hired, said Collier Smith, NIST public affairs specialist.

“All federal government agencies are mandated to be extremely compliant with the EEOC,” he said.

Still, Hinkle, who grew up in a time of “scary words” such as insane asylum, said the employee was a benefit to NIST in the five years she worked there and that her illness was in most respects a non-issue. “She had the best memory in the world — walking telephone book,” she said. “She was a delight.”

Hinkle said the employee, who left NIST only to pursue a new opportunity, was dependable and eager to please. “It’s amazing what they can do if given the chance,” she said of the mentally ill.

So if an employer were wondering whether to hire a bipolar person such as Clay Evans, Hinkle would have an answer: “Go for it.”

Jeanie Straub, a staff writer for The Boulder County Business Report since February 1998, is bipolar.

BOULDER — Listen, we’ve got a guy we think you’d like to hire.

He functions well in highly stressful environments. At the Daily Camera, he writes a column, religion stories, features and is books editor. Many hats, but then our guy can juggle.

His brain moves quickly, and he can hold a lot of information up there at one time. What interviews to do, what stories to write, what to think about next week, next month. All this with his telephone ringing, ringing, ringing.

He’ll win…

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