He gave 13 years, got walking papers

ST. PETERSBURG

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 mmaharrey@sptimes.com.

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

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