Does the federal government have an obligation to provide its smoke-sensitive workers with a "safe environmental location" away from office mates who smoke cigarettes, puff pipes or savor cigars?
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled that the government has the duty to segregate smokers from those who cannot tolerate the byproducts of the habit.
In a decision that could have far-reaching consequences here and in other major federal centers, the three-judge panel gave the Defense Logistics Agency 60 days to find employe Irene Parodi, who cannot stand smoke, an assignment in a smoke-free office or let her retire at age 47 on disability.
Parodi, a procurement clerk, became ill several years ago after being transferred to an office with many heavy smokers. After trying to get a transfer, she appealed for disability retirement on the grounds that she could not work around smokers. The Office of Personnel Management turned her down. OPM said her condition did not meet the government's definition of disability.
She appealed the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which agreed with OPM.
Parodi took her case to court. Last week, it ruled that the Defense Department must find and offer her "suitable employment in a safe enviroment" or it would order the government to retire her on disability.
Federal officials here have requested copies of the ruling to see what it portends for their offices. The Justice Department, OPM and General Services Administration will all get into the act, in case it becomes an issue here between the smokers and nonsmokers among the town's 345,000 federal workers.
There is no definitive government policy on smoking. Generally speaking, the to-smoke or not-to-smoke question is up to the head of the agency or department. The "bible" on the subject is GSA's Federal Property Management Regulations, dated April 12, 1979.
Under those regulations, smoking is generally prohibited in auditoriums, classrooms, conference rooms, elevators, shuttle vehicles and hazardous areas. It is also prohibited in cafeterias and libraries, except in special areas of these facilities.
Officials and office managers are asked to try to work out problems between smokers and nonsmokers before they become a federal case. But that is easier said than done.
Although most people are unaware of it, federal regulations do state that "occupants of an office may unanimously declare that office a nonsmoking area . . . ." Of course, if nobody in the office smokes, you don't need to declare it, and if you have a stubborn smoker, you can't do it.
Pending a change in rules--which may come as a result of the San Francisco decision--there are other ways to deal with the smoking vs. nonsmoking problem.
When he headed the Department of Health and Human Services (then Health, Education and Welfare), Secretary Joseph Califano enforced no-smoking rules with the zeal of a reformed smoker. When he smelled smoke near his office, he let people know it was not a healthy habit around him.
Former Postmaster General E.T. Klassen took an even more direct approach. He was a big bear of a man who could, when need be, out-gruff just about anybody around. Klassen didn't smoke. He told several of his top aides that if they didn't quit smoking, he would fire them. They did.
"I've heard the Klassen story," a GSA official said. "It is an interesting approach. But I think we will wait to read the court's opinion."