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State Dept. agrees to pay $37M to settle disability discrimination lawsuit

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State Dept. agrees to pay $37M to settle disability discrimination lawsuit

State Dept. agrees to pay $37M to settle disability discrimination lawsuit

The State Department, settling a lawsuit spanning nearly two decades, is easing some restrictions that plaintiffs say unfairly denied Foreign Service jobs to individuals with disabilities.

The department announced in January it reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed more than 16 years ago, which challenged the standard of medical clearance for prospective diplomats to join the Foreign Service.

The State Department has agreed to pay more than $37 million to settle longstanding claims of disability discrimination, after the department rejected or delayed hiring more than 230 individuals who were unable to obtain a “Class 1” or “Worldwide Available” medical clearance.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued the department’s standards violated the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits agencies from using an individual’s disability as grounds to deny them federal employment.

The State Department, in a memo to all diplomatic and consular posts, said the department chose to settle the longstanding lawsuit in a way that “provides benefits and certainty to the class and to the department now, instead of prolonging the disagreement.”

The agency said its settlement also aligns with ongoing efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

“Our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse, dynamic perspectives power our diplomatic efforts,” the agency wrote.

Bryan Schwartz, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the settlement will shift department hiring practices that have been in place for decades.

“The core of the issue is the State Department was prohibiting people with disabilities from entering careers as Foreign Service officers. And this settlement will dramatically change that equation,” Schwartz said in an interview.

The agency, as part of the settlement, will extend conditional job offers to individuals included in the class-action lawsuit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will hold a hearing on March 15 to finalize the settlement agreement.

The lawsuit was led by Doering Meyer, a Foreign Service officer with multiple sclerosis who was initially denied a job in the Foreign Service before obtaining a waiver in 2008.

“To be told I could not have a job because of a ‘diagnosed neurological condition’ after my neurologist had said, in writing, that I was worldwide available, was demoralizing and humiliating,” Meyer told Federal News Network via email. “The law required employers to consider whether a person could do a job with reasonable accommodation, and yet, I was outright rejected because of a diagnosis — a label. ”

  Meyer said the settlement reinforces the requirement that agencies, under the Rehabilitation Act,  must assess whether a candidate can do a particular job with or without an accommodation.

“Prior to this lawsuit, even those with stable conditions were not allowed jobs as Foreign Service officers or specialists. Hopefully, those days are in the past, and the Foreign Service will now be open to anyone with the skills and desire to do the job,” Meyer wrote.

Schwartz said Meyer’s doctors determined she could be stationed around the world with no problems, especially considering that her MS was in remission. But the State Department said she could not be assigned work in hot or humid posts because of her MS.

“Because she couldn’t serve at 100% of the posts, they wouldn’t hire her at all, until we got her a waiver. That kind of approach, the all-or-nothing approach was, we’ve alleged from the outset, unlawful,” Schwartz said.

Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), said some longstanding challenges remain for diplomats with disabilities — including finding accessible housing overseas.

“We have some posts where there’s no housing that someone with a physical disability could live in,” Rubin said in an interview.

Rubin recalled the State Department provided him with three official residences during his Foreign Service career, and that all three had a significant number of stairs and were “completely inaccessible to people with disabilities.”

Rubin said he led the way in finding new accommodations at some posts, but the inaccessibility of an official residence in Moscow once prevented a State Department disabilities coordinator, who uses a wheelchair, from attending a Passover Seder.

“That’s not to say that none of our posts have accessible housing or offices. Some do — the new ones all do — because that’s been required since the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” Rubin said. “But the stuff that we’ve inherited, no.”

AFSA said in a statement that it supports the State Department’s settlement, but wants to ensure that the agency’s new policy does not “unfairly impact current members of the Service by putting greater pressure on them to serve more frequently at hardship and hard-to-fill posts. “

While all Foreign Services applicants must possess a Class 1 Worldwide Availability clearance, the State Department’s new policy creates a minimum threshold that requires applicants to be medically cleared to serve only at the designated Regional Medical Evacuation Centers, which are currently in  Bangkok, London, Pretoria and Singapore.

“AFSA has been assured by the department that this new medical threshold is just a minimum and it expects that all employees will be able to serve successfully at a wide variety of overseas posts, including hardship and hard-to-fill posts,” the association wrote in its statement.

Schwartz, however, said people with disabilities are not any less eager, willing, or able to work at hardship posts overseas.

Meyer, the Foreign Service officer who led the lawsuit, is currently serving as the chief of the consular section in N’Djamena, Chad, where she’s responsible for overseeing all visa and American citizen services.

“It’s got to be one of the harder posts in the world, and she’s previously been in other difficult posts,” Schwartz said. “There’s just no evidence at all that people with disabilities, particularly if accommodations are taken into account, won’t be able to work at hardship posts [and] are going to be less likely to bid on those posts.”

Meyer also served as chief of the consular section while serving in Vilnius, Lithuania, and also served as the immigration visa chief in Cairo, Egypt. Meyer said she was also cleared to serve at posts that include Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

During a five-year monitoring period, the State Department under the settlement will periodically assess the impact of its revised policy and its impact on the agency’s ability to meet the needs of the Foreign Service.

Schwartz said the settlement will immediately affect over 100 individuals who will be given conditional employment offers, or will be allowed to retake certain parts of the Foreign Service entrance exam.

In the longer term, Schwartz said the settlement will hopefully make the Foreign Service a more accommodating employer for people with disabilities.

“It’ll affect possibly thousands of people going forward, because the way in which the Foreign Service has been eliminating people with disabilities. It’s not going to be how the State Department operates going forward,” Schwartz said.

Rubin said the Foreign Service generally hasn’t seen many diplomats with disabilities, and wasn’t sure that the settlement would change that.

“The numbers have not been great. And we don’t expect them to be, but we don’t know,” Rubin said. “They have to pass all the other hurdles, it’s not like they’re getting preferential admission. So if they’re qualified and they would otherwise be admitted, then they should be able to be admitted, if they can go overseas and serve in a variety of posts.”

Rubin said diplomats with disabilities shouldn’t face limits on where they can serve, adding that individuals with disabilities have served in Afghanistan and Iraq and some other “very tough places.”

“We want to see more access for people with disabilities to the Foreign Service. It’s 2023, and we want a diverse, representative Foreign Service,” Rubin said.

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