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Diabetic says illness caused her firing

As a new police dispatcher for this city, Cynthia A. Lavallee came with glowing recommendations, a positive attitude and a small but important request. Lavallee, a diabetic, needed a few minutes during her shift to inject herself with insulin and have a bite to eat.

She was not allowed that break during her employment, from March to August 1990, she says.

Her supervisor complained when she snacked at her desk. And she was discouraged from leaving her work area to get her insulin from the nearby refrigerator, she says.

"Sometimes the insulin shots were late, the meals were late," Lavallee said. "Sometimes it was so busy, no one would relieve you, and I couldn't take the insulin at all."

Ultimately, Lavallee was hospitalized. Then she was fired for missing too much work because of her diabetes.

Now a board has ruled that Pinellas Park discriminated against Lavallee, 32, because of her diabetes. At a hearing Tuesday, Lavallee and Pinellas Park officials are scheduled to discuss a settlement.

Pinellas Park officials say they did nothing wrong.

"She was continually sick," Police Chief David Milchan said. "Her contention that we discriminated against her is absolutely crazy." He concedes he is baffled that Lavallee became sick only while working for Pinellas Park and not for her previous or subsequent employers.

"What the city government did to me should have never happened," Lavallee countered. "My diabetes was made an issue."

A national diabetes group points to the case as an example of how many employers misunderstand diabetics.

"I don't think they're aware of what little they have to do to accommodate people," said Jean Whalen, government relations manager for the American Diabetes Association in Alexandria, Va. "Some people just need to keep food at their desk. What's the problem with taking the time to take a snack?"

"We all liked her'

Lavallee apparently was well-liked and hard-working in other jobs. As a dispatcher for three months in Clearwater, from October 1989 to January 1990, she did not miss a day and sometimes worked overtime.

And in Gulfport, where she was hired as a police dispatcher Sept. 1 after having been fired from Pinellas Park, she works in six-day stretches. She has not been sick.

In Pinellas Park, however, she did not fare as well.

From the time she began work March 2, 1990, Lavallee said her supervisor, Carol Seely, discouraged her from taking time to properly care for her diabetes.

For example, Lavallee had to keep her insulin refrigerated. The refrigerator at the police department was 50 feet away from her desk, which she was not allowed to leave, she said.

"You could eat at the desk," Lavallee said. "But over and over she was telling me I would be terminated if I let my diabetes interfere."

On at least three occasions, Lavallee, who worked with one other dispatcher and a supervisor, became ill and eventually was hospitalized.

One month shy of completing her six-month probation, she was fired Aug. 1, 1990, after she walked into the department to begin her eight-hour, midnight shift.

"We were aware that she had a good background," Milchan said. "We didn't have any problems with her work. We all liked her.

"I don't know why she had this sick time with us," he said of the 10 sick days Lavallee took off in five months. "There was a lot of down time."

Because the public's safety can depend on the actions of a radio dispatcher, Milchan said the department needs dispatchers who are dependable.

Lavallee said Seely, her supervisor, made it clear why she had been fired.

"We had to terminate her because of her medical condition," she said in a telephone conversation to Lavallee's husband, Robert, a half-hour after she was fired. The department taped the conversation.

That, Lavallee said, is employment discrimination.

In May, the St. Petersburg Human Relations Department agreed. The department enforces local, state and federal civil rights laws in employment for south Pinellas County.

Those laws say in part that employers who hire the handicapped are required to provide "reasonable accommodations" for the people to perform their duties.

"I believe that the city of Pinellas Park did not reasonably accommodate Mrs. Lavallee," said Betty Cooper, a department investigator. She added that reasonable cause exists to believe Pinellas Park discriminated against Lavallee by firing her.

Furthermore, the city's actions also violate its personnel policies, said Lydia S. Castle, a Gulfcoast Legal Services attorney representing Lavallee.

She said Pinellas Park officials knew Lavallee had diabetes when they hired her and failed to provide medical evidence she no longer could perform the job.

Lavallee said her doctor wrote a release for her to return to work, proving she could do the job. She said the type of diabetes she has _ juvenile diabetes, which can be controlled with insulin injections _ does not prohibit her from holding a job like dispatcher.

Seely refused to comment for this story. She said all questions about the case should be referred to Ed Foreman, Pinellas Park city attorney, who was not available last week.

Broader interests

The issues raised in this case affect more people than just Lavallee, her attorney says.

"I know Mrs. Lavallee has broader interests than just her case and she is right," said Castle, who has fought employment discrimination for 10 years. "I think employers need to be educated about these handicaps. The more the public and employers are educated the better it is going to be."

Castle said Lavallee clearly does not need or want her job back. But she will ask for back pay for the days she spent between jobs, Castle said, and she wants publicity.

Lavallee said she hopes the case goes to a public hearing instead of being swept under the rug with a settlement.

"My number one goal is satisfaction," she said. "My number two goal: so that it doesn't happen to someone else."

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