Giving Workers the Treatment - If you raise a stink, you go to a shrink!
by Peter Downs
On October 5, 1998, Norm Crosty sent a letter to the labor relationsdepartment at his plant. Crosty, for thirteen years an electrician at Ford Motor Company's Wixom, Michigan, assembly plant, complained that he could not do his job because so many of his bosses were taking the necessary equipment out of the plant to work on their homes or personal businesses.
next day, the plant director of human resources invoked a Ford program for
combating workplace violence to bar Crosty from the factory and ordered him to
see a company-paid psychiatrist or lose his job.
little more than fourteen months later, and 725 miles away, officials at Emory
University cited a similar concern about violence to justify using armed guards
to escort Dr. James Murtagh off university property when Dr. R. Wayne Alexander,
chairman of the department of medicine at Emory, ordered him to see a
company-selected psychiatrist or lose his job. Six weeks earlier, Murtagh, a
professor of pulmonology at Emory, had filed a false claims suit against the
university, alleging that it had misspent millions of dollars in federal grant
money. He claimed the university diverted money from research grants in order to
pay for salaries and trips for administrators and some staff. The specific
allegations were sealed by order of the federal judge.
and Murtagh don't know each other. It is unlikely their worlds would ever
intersect, but they have at least one thing in common. They both are victims of
an increasingly popular employer weapon against whistleblowers: the psychiatric
the United States, companies have seized upon concerns about workplace violence
to quash dissent. Hundreds of large corporations have hired psychiatrists and
psychologists as consultants to advise them on how to weed out
"threatening" employees. They say they are only responding to a 1970
directive from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that they
maintain a "safe and secure work environment." But by drawing the
definition of "threatening" as broadly as possible, they are giving
themselves a new club to bang over the heads of workers.
Buffa, a former salaried employee in the personnel department at Ford World
Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, said she, too, was sent to a psychiatrist
after she filed a sexual harassment complaint in February 1999 against a woman
co-worker. "You think, maybe I am the problem, else why would they be
sending me to a psychiatrist," she said. The psychiatrist Ford selected,
Dr. Edward Dorsey of Midwest Health Center, made a report that said the only
psychiatric symptom Buffa displayed was anxiety. Dorsey's report said that the
referral came from Ford's medical department and was at least in part due to her
complaints of sexual harassment. He also noted that the Ford doctor who referred
Buffa cited a couple of "incidents": She was seen yelling at someone,
and she had shown up at a fitness center "wearing less than the usual
amount of clothing for that physical activity."
April 1999, Buffa's boss fired her "for the good of the company," she
recalled being told.
some cases, a "threatening" employee may just be an ardent union
Nancy Schillinger. While a United Auto Workers committeewoman at Ford's St.
Paul, Minnesota, assembly plant, she repeatedly lectured her members about
standing up for their contract rights. They were the union, she said, and it was
up to them to make the company honor the contract. Her own union representative,
committeeman Tom Laney, calls her "a real unionist."
1999, she returned to a job on the line to practice what she preached. Every
time she saw a contract violation, she challenged it. She spent most of the time
out of the plant on disciplinary layoffs. She'd file grievances challenging
those as violations of the contract, and usually she won. On December 21, 1999,
she was placed on medical leave to undergo a psychiatric fitness-for-duty
examination, but she was not given a reason for the order,as Labor Notes first
reported. Eventually, the local union's building chairman told her the
fitness-for-duty exam was ordered because she had so many grievances and
disciplinary marks on her record.
the ordered psychiatric exam as both a fraud and a violation of the UAW-Ford
collective bargaining agreement, Schillinger refused to submit to it. On
February 4, 2000, she was fired. She complained to the National Labor Relations
Board. The board investigator, however, concluded in his report on the matter
that the company was justified in requiring a psychiatric examination given
Schillinger's confrontational attitude" and "dissident
this spring, Schillinger's grievance contesting her firing had moved out of the
hands of the local union to the international union. There, the servicing
representative assigned to handle grievances from her plant withdrew it, in
effect accepting her firing. Schillinger claims some local union officials who
were her political adversaries were behind the whole thing and merely bumped the
grievance up to the international union so that someone insulated from
membership action could take the heat for quashing her grievance.
communications manager Ed Miller confirms that the company does have a program
against workplace violence, directed by plant human resources directors.
"But one of the pieces is that we do not talk about it externally," he
says. He won't comment on Schillinger's case, but he does say that he doubts the
veracity of Crosty's and Buffa's stories.
have policies that are very clear," he says, "and we have a hotline
for reporting any kind of harassment an employee might have." In the cases
of Crosty and Buffa, he adds, "it sounds like they were doing exactly what
we want them to do."
you might expect, the Postal Service, given its reputation for workplace
violence, has bought into the psychiatric testing. Last September, Postal
Service executives proposed to give line supervisors the right to order
emergency psychiatric exams for employees who are argumentative. Unionists say
this will jeopardize their ability to represent their members. "We have a
lot of union officers and very active union members who spend a lot of time
arguing with management and defending their rights under the contract. Under
this rule, they could be characterized as people who need psychiatric
help," says Steve Albanese, an American Postal Workers Union (APWU)
national business agent based in Massachusetts.
admits there are some people who clearly need help, but he says the Postal
Service has so broadened its definition of events that can trigger a mandatory
exam that "it is very easy to tie someone up in that psychiatric
situation." According to the APWU, "The following is a list of factors
that a supervisor can consider when deciding whether or not to send an employee
for a fitness-for-duty exam: significant increases in unscheduled absences,
increased bathroom use, changes in behavior or work performance after lavatory
or lunch breaks, deterioration in personal hygiene and/or cleanliness of the
work location, inattention to work duties and progressive deterioration in
concentration and memory, [and] threatening behavior. Supervisors can also
impose emergency fitness-for-duty exams if an employee becomes argumentative, or
shows an unusual interest in news stories or literature dealing with
Ford's communications manager thinks the new Postal Service rules go too far.
Line supervisors at Ford don't have the power to order anyone to take a
psychiatric exam, he explained. "I don't think anyone does," Miller
says. "That sounds kind of Stalinist."
American Postal Workers Union is challenging the unilateral change, which may
end up going before an arbitrator. The U.S. Postal Service refused to comment on
symposium and panel discussion at the American Psychological association's
annual convention last August called fitness-for-duty exams a huge growth area
for psychologists. An article on the meetings in the association's journal,
Monitor on Psychology, noted that even though workplace violence is actually
decreasing, more companies are seeking out psychologists to help them put in
place programs to prevent violence, "creating a promising new niche for
Foote, a forensic psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and chairman of the
symposium, called workplace violence programs a tremendous and potentially
lucrative opportunity for psychologists. Gary VandenBos, executive director of
publications and communications at the American Psychological Association, said
there is so much business that, even in a town with a population of only 20,000,
a psychologist in private practice could devote a day a week to corporate
workplace violence consulting. VandenBos is co-editor of Violence on the Job:
Identifying Risks and Developing Solutions.
web site for Michael H. Corcoran, Ph.D. & Associates, Inc., for example,
asks: "Will the expert you consult be willing to render an opinion of
dangerousness and be willing to put it in writing?" and "Will the
expert be willing to do this without interviewing the subject personally?"
Some psychiatrists in the field doubt that any reliable judgment can be made without interviewing the subject. Dr. Renato Alarcon, chief of psychiatric services at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center, is chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on the Misuses and Abuse of Psychiatry and Psychiatrists. Speaking for himself, he says it is possible to tell if a worker is likely to become violent on the job, but not with 100 percent accuracy. But, he insists, "it will require more than just one session with the worker, and it will also require information from other sources close to the patient, including relatives, acquaintances in the neighborhood, work, etc." If a psychiatrist is evaluating someone who is already on the job, he says, "one measure to prevent mistakes is to require a second opinion. That would give the individual the option to appeal and have his or her own evaluator."
are skeptical of the objectivity of the psychiatrists the companies use.
"We call them prostitutes, because they will write whatever the Postal
Service wants them to," says Shirley McLennan, vice president of APWU Local
4 in Louisville, Kentucky, of the doctors who do fitness-for-duty exams. She
says the Postal Service will even bring in doctors from Cincinnati to do
fitness-for-duty exams instead of using local Lexington doctors.
Soeken, a former U.S. Public Health Service psychiatric social worker who used
to be in charge of giving fitness-for-duty exams, says the psychiatric exams
almost always are shams. "The doctor will go into all the areas that could
discredit a person," Soeken says. "He'll ask early life questions,
late life questions, sexual questions, whatever he wants to ask, and then write
it up and give it to the boss or law firm. Any doctor worth his salt will find
something wrong, or even make up something, and if you don't answer one of his
questions, then you are uncooperative and you can be fired for that, too. What
they are trying to do is put a person out on a psychiatric disability. If they
succeed, you would never work again in your lifetime."
is sometimes called the father of the fight against abusive fitness-for-duty
exams. While doing such exams for federal employees at the Public Health
Service's outpatient clinic in Washington, D.C., in 1978, he discovered that
many of the people sent to him were either whistleblowers or people who had a
personality clash with the boss. The employer making the referrals expected him
to give them the ammunition to get rid of employees for mental health reasons.
only found two people who were serious [psychiatric] cases," he said.
Soeken, working with syndicated columnist Jack Anderson and Maryland
Congresswoman Gladys Spellman, exposed the abuses of mandatory psychiatric
fitness-for-duty exams. This led to an executive order from President Ronald
Reagan banning the exams in the executive branch. Between 1945, when President
Harry Truman ordered the beginning of mandatory psychiatric fitness-for-duty
exams, and 1984, 10,000 federal employees were forced to undergo them, Soeken
leaving the Public Health Service in 1994, Soeken established Integrity
International to assist whistleblowers in the private sector. Since then, he has
testified as an expert witness in seventy psychiatric reprisal lawsuits. Soeken
warns anyone who will listen not to trust the company psychiatrist.
you assume the doctor is concerned about your health and well-being, you've made
a deadly assumption," he says. "They are looking for any phrase or
evidence they can use against you to stereotype you as schizophrenic, paranoid,
part of that search can involve ransacking a worker's past medical records.
Postal unionist Albanese represented one worker last year who won an arbitration
ruling to return to work after he had been fired for a totally different reason.
In order to return to work, he had to pass a fitness-for-duty exam. The Postal
Service doctor required that he turn over all of his medical records, even to
the extent of requiring that he track down doctors who had treated him as a
it turns out, this worker had received psychiatric care as a teenager some
thirty years before. When the company doctor discovered that, he declared the
worker unfit for duty, Albanese says, in essence reversing the arbitrator's
ruling. Albanese recently took an appeal of that decision to a new arbitrator,
who ruled that the Postal Service was within its rights, since there was no
guarantee that the problems the employee had as a teenager would not recur.
something you say in counseling can be used against you thirty years later,
doesn't that destroy the whole point of counseling?" Albanese asks.
the grounds to fire an employee is not the only goal of employer-mandated
psychiatric exams, says Tom Devine, legal director for the Government
Accountability Project. Often, another goal is to smear and discredit the
employee. That, he said, is why psychiatric harassment "is unsurpassed in
Crosty's case, a notice on the company bulletin board announced he had been
expelled from the plant for psychiatric reasons. "It was very
demeaning," says Crosty. With the help of an attorney, and after he was
cleared by four different psychiatrists, he got his job back, but "I was
totally discredited as some kind of kook and wacko," he says.
Murtagh's case, administrators at Emory "spread a rumor that he could be
armed and dangerous, and a terrorist threat," says Devine, whose
organization has taken up Murtagh's defense.
November 2000, a judge put Murtagh under a gag order. By that time, he had
already spent $500,000 defending himself against Emory's allegations. Once a
highly recruited research scientist from the National Institutes of Health, he
acknowledged that whatever the outcome of his legal battles, "I will never
get an academic job again. . . . My life and dreams have been uprooted."
Gleason, assistant vice president in Emory's office of communications, said the
administration cannot comment on Murtagh's case. She also declined to comment on
what procedures the university uses to determine when a mandatory psychiatric
examination is warranted, when the administration began using such exams, or how
many exams it has ordered. According to an account in the Emory student
newspaper, Emory Wheel, in the last three years the administrators ordered five
tenured faculty, who were critics of administration policies, to undergo
psychiatric examination as a prelude to breaking their tenure and firing them.
Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a new rule requiring that an employer be able to demonstrate a business necessity before subjecting an employee to a medical inquiry. One of its last acts was to issue new regulations restricting an employer's right to dig into an employee's medical history. Part of the patient privacy regulations published by the Department of Health and Human Services on December 28, 2000, the rule bans employer access to health information for use in hiring, firing, or making promotions without the voluntary consent of the employee. Albanese interprets that to mean an employer can't fire you for refusing to turn over your health records.
On February 23, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, TommyThompson, pushed back the effective date of the rule to give the Administration and Congress time to reexamine it. "We're hoping Bush doesn't rescind it," says Albanese.