Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

He gave 13 years, got walking papers


For 13 years, Luis Polanco spent eight to 16 hours a day locked in a house with up to 28 potentially violent juvenile offenders.

As a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice youth counselor at the Britt Halfway House in St. Petersburg, Polanco, 40, acted as friend, disciplinarian, guard and mentor for the moderate-risk boys.

"I gave my life to helping these kids," he said.

Today he sits in the safety of his own home wondering how he will pay the bills.

Diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, Polanco can no longer do his job, but because he's not completely incapacitated, he does not qualify for disability income. When he turned to his boss hoping to find a position he was physically able to do, he was denied. Lawyers said he fell into a gray area. The state made promises, none kept.

Last week, time ran out.

Polanco received a final letter of dismissal on April 4. It became effective Friday.

"Usually you have to do something stupid to lose your job," he said. "All I did was go to the doctor."

Polanco's odyssey began in the summer of 2006. He took a physical as part of the application process for the Sheriff's Office. He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle often associated with sudden death in young athletes.

Doctors told Polanco that stress or even normal activity could trigger heart failure. After a series of tests and multiple opinions, Polanco received the final determination: He could no longer do his job. The strain of restraining an unruly youth could kill him.

Polanco had accumulated a large number of sick days. He was also able to draw from a pool of sick and vacation time donated by co-workers, which gave him time to ponder his options.

In January 2007, Polanco applied for disability retirement. The 30-day process stretched to nearly five months because of what Polanco called state incompetence. He initially received an incomplete packet and later, his entire application got routed to the wrong department.

In May Polanco finally received a final determination: Application denied.

"They turned me down because they said I qualify for a sedentary job," he said.

When a job opened in the kitchen, Polanco asked his boss, Larry Chestnut, about filling that position. Even though it was a step down, it would allow him to maintain his seniority, benefits, insurance and retirement as a state employee.

Polanco said Chestnut told him he would check with personnel and continued to give him the runaround for several months.

In frustration, last August Polanco filed a grievance against his boss for the handling of the disability paperwork. Chestnut responded in a letter stating that the date of the event triggering the grievance was March 5 and that the grievance was not filed within the required seven days of the occurrence.

Chestnut said he could not comment for this story.

Polanco received a letter from Thomas McFadyen, the central regional director, on Sept. 17.

"Filing of disability papers and ensuring the required documentation of paperwork are filed is the responsibility of the employee," it read.

The same letter also informed him that he was not qualified for the kitchen position because he didn't meet the technical requirements, which include one year of food service experience or a food handling certificate from a technical school.

Polanco still doesn't understand why they wouldn't let him fill the position.

"If the cook wasn't there, if he was sick or on vacation, we handled the kitchen — breakfast lunch and dinner," he said.

Running out of options, Polanco contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency initially told him he might have a case but ultimately determined that the state was within its legal rights to terminate him.

Juan F. Perea, a professor at the University of Florida College of Law who specializes in employment law, said an employer must make reasonable accommodations for a disabled individual to perform the essential functions of a job, but if that's not possible, the employer does not have to offer an alternative.

But Perea points out that considerations exist beyond the law.

"There could be good reasons, even though there are no legal reasons, to take care of an employee who needs to be taken care of," he said.

"It may not be a bad investment, but each employer has to make that decision for themselves."

"The situation seems unfair and it's a sad situation, but it doesn't appear the employee has a right to demand anything from the state," Perea said.

On March 20, Polanco received a certified letter. It was the official notification of his pending dismissal due to "inefficiency or inability to perform duties."

Polanco said he will find a new job but worries that he won't be able to find comparable pay or benefits.

More than that, he said he feels like 13 years of hard work meant nothing and wonders why his employer wasn't more willing to help.

"Everywhere I went, I had the door closed on me," he said. "It's not about a job anymore. I just want someone to know what's going on."

Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or

He gave 13 years, got walking papers 04/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:44pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Video: Loggerhead sea turtle found in Islamorada resident's pool


    An adult female loggerhead sea turtle, discovered in an oceanside residential pool in Islamorada on Monday, has been rescued and released off the Florida Keys.

    An adult female loggerhead sea turtle, discovered in an oceanside residential pool in Islamorada on June 22, 2017, has been rescued and released off the Florida Keys. [Photo from video]

  2. What Wilson Ramos will mean to the Rays lineup, pitching

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Chris Archer was stumping for all-star votes for Corey Dickerson during a live interview Wednesday morning on the MLB Network when he lifted the right earpiece on his headset and said, "I hear a buffalo coming."

    Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos (40) waves to the crowd after being presented with the Silver Slugger Award before the start of the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, April 4, 2017.
  3. Deon Cain, Duke Dawson, Derrick Nnadi among SI's top 100 players


    Sports Illustrated's countdown of the top 100 players in college football continues with three more local players.

  4. She doesn't care if you accept her, as long as you respect her

    Human Interest

    Mary Jane Taylor finds strength walking quietly among the dead.

    Mary Jane Taylor,18, visits Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown Tampa when she is feeling low. "When I hit my low points in life I go the the graveyard," she says. "people are afraid of the graveyard. I love the graveyard." The transgender teen recently graduated from Jefferson High School. She is  enrolled in summer classes at Santa Fe College in Gainesville studying international business. She plans to transfer to the University of Florida, attend law school and become a civil rights lawyer. (JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times)
  5. Few new details in state investigation of Tarpon Springs officer-involved shooting of Nick Provenza

    Public Safety

    TARPON SPRINGS — An investigative report, released this week by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, into the officer-involved shooting that killed 25-year-old Nick Provenza included largely the same narrative prosecutors released this month that ruled the shooting a "justifiable homicide."

    Stopping while riding by on his bike Michael Prater, 15, hangs his head after looking at the memorial at Safford and Tarpon avenues for Nick Provenza, a 25-year-old who was shot and killed there during a car show Saturday by a Tarpon Springs police officer. Investigators said Provenza pulled a knife on the cop who shot him. Friends find it hard to believe a man they described as a peaceful vegan and musician would be capable of such an act. Prater didn't know the victim but was at the car show.