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WA Workers Face Discrimination for Chronic Illnesses

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Monday, January 29, 2007   

Has a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision made it easier for employers to get rid of people with chronic medical conditions? Advocates for people with disabilities say Washington had a perfectly good definition of what constitutes a 'disability,' until the state Supreme Court threw it out last fall in a case, McClarty v. Totem Electric, that involved a worker's carpal tunnel syndrome claims against his employer.

The court replaced the 30-year-old Washington Law Against Discrimination with a federal law -- the Americans With Disabilities Act -- that defines disabilities more narrowly. Advocates for people with disabilities say the federal law just doesn't work in many 'real world' situations, and the change has left people with chronic illnesses without some of the legal protections they used to have in the workplace.

Dylan Malone, chair of the Washington Network for Civil Justice and Accountability, leads a coalition of groups asking the Legislature to reinstate those safeguards.

"We don't want to return to an era where you can find out that somebody has a terrible illness and, as long as you fire them before they're actually 'sick,' then it's okay, because they aren't disabled yet."

Malone says most people with chronic illnesses, such as Lou Gehrig's disease or being HIV positive, and some types of on-the-job injuries, assume they're protected from workplace discrimination and don't realize that may not be the case -- or that they should speak up about it.

"It sounds like an esoteric thing, 'Oh, who cares how they define 'disability?' But it actually makes all the difference in the world. If you have a chronic condition that could threaten your ability to do your job, you need these protections."

The legislation is SB 5340, sponsored by Senator Adam Kline, and HB 1322, sponsored by Representative John McCoy. It would reinstate wording from the original Washington Law Against Discrimination, effectively overriding the court decision. The House hears the new legislation in about a week. Opponents include some business owners and the state Attorney General's office, who claim the new wording is too vague.



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