In the Trenches: Acme discovers a case of faked disability they should have seen coming

An Acme employee claims disability leave for an injury that doesn't exist, after her requested vacation time is denied. Why did she do it? To marry a coworker. Find out the details in this month's In the Trenches and remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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Summer is the wrong time to be indoors working for the man. That motto says everything you need to know about the corporate culture at the old Acme plant. Think heavy industry -- hot, dusty, noisy. It’s no wonder employees there have raised hooky to an art form. And, the man continues to think he knows what’s going down.

Like most companies, Acme has two main forms of paid time off – vacation and disability leave. Full-time exempt employees become eligible for both after they’ve been with the company for 91 calendar days.

Anyone wanting to take some vacation time must submit properly countersigned vacation request forms, in triplicate, to the scheduling department. Getting one’s supervisor to sign the forms isn’t difficult, as most supervisors spend a good part of each day signing all manner of paperwork necessary to grease the wheels of industry in this near-Paleolithic plant. After a few months of writer’s cramp, most supervisors no longer pay close attention to what they’re signing.

Then, after due consideration and sufficient delay, the scheduling department grants vacation time on the basis of seniority, which determines both the amount of time granted and exactly when it can be used.
Disability leave, on the other hand, requires an employee to have a doctor submit a letter, in triplicate, to the HR department to certify that the employee is indeed disabled and, more importantly, unable to work.

Employees who qualify for disability leave automatically qualify for FMLA leave, as long as both leaves run concurrently.

Ever since that night shift they met on the plant floor, Shirley Eugeste and Ken Nelkopf have been a couple. They consistently try to arrange reasonably identical vacation schedules. Simultaneity, though, is nearly impossible because Ken, with 30-plus years of seniority, generally has no difficulty getting his choices approved without question. Although Shirley requests the same weeks, having only six years on the job, she finds herself in competition with many other short-tenure employees, all of whom want the best vacation schedules.

In the last round of Acme’s vacation lottery, Ken got approval for his five preferred week-long vacation periods because he was clever enough to spread them over the year. Shirley, however, was granted only one of the three weeks to which she was entitled. Fortunately, that week matched one on Ken’s schedule.
With a sense of overwhelming love and affection, Shirley requested a one-month disability leave that overlapped the two one-week vacations that were denied her through the scheduling department, the same two weeks that Ken would be on vacation. And, the HR department granted Shirley’s medical leave well in advance of when it was to commence.

It was a full day after Shirley started her medical leave that the paperwork from HR reached the desk of Lee Vyjeens, Shirley’s supervisor. Initially, Lee thought the paperwork merely explained why Shirley was absent yesterday and today. But then she realized two things. First, Shirley would be out for the next four weeks and, second, the dates of this medical leave encompassed the dates Shirley requested for vacation time earlier in the year. This curiosity jogged Lee’s memory. She checked her records from the previous year and noticed that Shirley was on disability leave that year, too, and for the same reason, an ankle injury sustained while exercising on a treadmill. And, like this year, the disability leave corresponded to one of Shirley’s requested, but denied, vacation leaves.

Lee took her suspicions to Acme’s HR department for advice on what to do when Shirley returns to work.

The discussions took a right turn somewhere, which resulted in Acme hiring a private detective to find out what Shirley was doing. Within 48 hours, the investigator returned with an uncut one-hour video showing Shirley playing second base in a coed softball league game.

Acme’s HR department interpreted the video to mean that Shirley was engaged in an activity that was somehow inconsistent with a claim of ankle injury. Lee was instructed to suspend Shirley without pay upon her return to work pending an investigation into whether Shirley falsified company records, in triplicate, which was, according to the company handbook, cause for termination.

At the hearing the next month, Shirley offered no reason why she shouldn’t be terminated and admitted that she and Ken flew to Nevada, where they were married in one of those charming roadside chapels.

How could this situation have been avoided? Now that it hasn’t, how should Acme respond to it? Is Acme’s vacation policy the root cause of the problem? Is Acme’s corporate culture part of the problem? Does it make sense to get romantically involved with a coworker? Should Acme modify its employee handbook in response to this case? Should the paperwork flow be improved since Lee did not receive the information in time to deny the initial request, which would have avoided the problem altogether?

A corporate consultant says:

Although it's possible that this specific instance may have been avoided if x, y or z had or hadn’t happened, the root cause here is Shirley's deceitfulness. Having demonstrated that she's willing to misuse the company benefits, defraud the benefits provider, falsify records, elevate her wants above equally deserving coworkers, and then lie about it all, more than once, would eventually result in additional “deceptions à la Shirley.”

Sure, if Acme's paper flow were structured such that Shirley's leave requests would have reached her supervisor in advance, this particular case might not have occurred. But even if her supervisor found out in advance and prevented Shirley from taking the time off, this wouldn't have changed the facts of Shirley's dishonesty. And perhaps the employee handbook should be modified. However, there’s absolutely no question that Shirley intentionally deceived Acme and other parties to get her way.

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