Light-duty drudgery isn’t grounds for lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

If you use light-duty positions to bring injured employees back to work, some of their tasks may end up being fairly characterized as make-work drudgery. That doesn’t mean an employee can successfully sue—as long as in the past all similarly situated employees ended up in the same kinds of positions.

Recent case: Anna Hall was a plumber for the City of Chicago who took about four years off on disability leave. When she was cleared to work, she still had medical restrictions, including a lifting limit of 25 pounds.

Because of the restrictions, she was placed in a light-duty position in the House Drains Division. Her new supervisor handed her a box of videotapes to watch—and no other work. She dutifully reviewed each tape and took notes, summarizing their content. However, she found much of the video material offensive, since it frequently focused on fecal matter and feminine hygiene products that clog drains.

Hall sued, alleging she had been subjected to a hostile work environment meant to humiliate her.

The city argued that reviewing the tapes was legitimate light-duty work. It said the information portrayed was integral to determining whether a homeowner or the city was responsible for a clogged drain. By summarizing the videos, Hall enabled her supervisor to have a ready resource to use when homeowners challenged decisions to charge them for unclogging a drain.

The court said Hall had no case. It determined that others on light duty got work that wasn’t particularly interesting, too. It also said the content, given the background, didn’t create a hostile work environment. (Hall v. City of Chicago, No. 09-C-2114, ND IL, 2011)

Bottom line: Light-duty work is sometimes boring and may even be perceived as demeaning. That’s perfectly legal.

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