Cheryl Hewitt, who has cerebral palsy, worked her last day Friday and is now filing an equal employment opportunity complaint against the VA. She had started the job in January.
The VA has stated that Hewitt's disability had nothing to do with its decision and that the organization has "extensive documentation" to support its actions, according to a press release. Among the reasons listed for Hewitt's firing: having her cousin take notes for her, letting her cousin copy her patients' Social Security numbers onto a log sheet, and failing "to function independently."
Hewitt said she never revealed any of her patients' private information, and asked her cousin to take notes only because her supervisors failed to provide a note-taker. Hewitt has limited muscle control and uses a wheelchair.
"They set her up in a situation where they said, 'Your notes are not coming in fast enough,' but she couldn't get her notes in because of her disability," said Heidi Rosenfelder, Hewitt's attorney. Hewitt's supervisors had allegedly said they would look into getting her a note-taker, said Rosenfelder, but never followed through.
Unable to complete her notes alone, said Hewitt, she asked her cousin to help but never revealed any of her patient's Social Security numbers. The only numbers her cousin would have seen, she said, were numbers used to track cases.
"I'm a social worker. I would never share anyone's personal information for any reason," Hewitt said.
Her handwriting was so bad, she sometimes had to submit her notes three times until her supervisors would accept them, she said.
"I had a case manager stop me in the middle of the hallway and tell me that I better get a new job because I would never be able to do this one," Hewitt said. "He didn't even tell me in private."
The social worker alleges other working conditions were also unacceptable, including severed (though not live) wires hanging underneath her desk and an office door that she had to close by pulling a rope tied around the handle.
"I do use a rope at home (to close the door), but the rope they gave me was six feet long and kept getting tangled," Hewitt said.
The VA had allegedly promised an automated door to provide for her disability, she said, but it never came.
"One cannot judge (Hewitt's) performance without giving her the proper tools to do her job," said Mark Floding, second vice president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union chapter, at a press conference on Tuesday. Floding has dealt with several of Hewitt's supervisors during her termination process.
VA spokesperson Kerri Childress would not comment on the allegations beyond the press release, which said they "take great pride in our long history of actively recruiting and employing disabled people and offering opportunities for employees to reach their full potential in a work environment free of discrimination and harassment."
But Rosenfelder said that Hewitt's supervisors had tried to fire her from the beginning, citing an attempt to terminate her for allegedly lying on her job application. Hewitt said she voluntarily left her previous job at Father Murray Nursing Center in Center Line, Mich., in exchange for a severance package, but the center accidentally wrote that Hewitt had been "terminated."
Hewitt's supervisors later reconsidered.
Palo Alto's VA has a "bad track record" in employee treatment, Rosenfelder said, adding that Hewitt's firing violates the federal Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to provide equal opportunities for disabled persons.
"We in this country have really amazing disability laws," said Rosenfelder, "but they mean nothing if advisors and supervisors don't follow those laws."
Rosenfelder said the process of filing a complaint with the VA could take more than a year to produce a verdict, including an internal investigation within the VA, a hearing with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and finally, the decision from an administrative judge. Until then, she said, Hewitt has to rely on union and community pressure to urge the VA to reconsider.
"The courts are a long process," she said. "I hope the community can take faster action on this issue."