The federal government often touts itself as a model employer of workers with disabilities. Lisa Bremer begs to differ.
She was awarded $3 million yesterday in compensatory damages after jurors found that the Commerce Department failed to provide "reasonable accommodation" for her battle with multiple sclerosis.
Bremer, 44, a Freedom of Information Act officer at the department since 1987, took disability retirement in April 2003 after her supervisor ended an arrangement that had allowed Bremer to work from home two days a week. She sued at that time.
Bremer, who was diagnosed with MS in 1991 and uses a wheelchair, had submitted medical documentation that her condition was severe enough to justify special treatment under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (The law requires the government to make adjustments so qualified workers with disabilities can perform the essential functions of their jobs.) The Commerce Department had approved her physicians' request in 1993 that Bremer be allowed to work from home two days a week, and in 1996 the department bought a motorized scooter for her to use in the office, said her attorney, Joseph V. Kaplan.
"This all could have been prevented if the Department of Commerce had just lived up to its obligations," Kaplan said.
Federal law limits Bremer's award for compensatory damages to $300,000, Kaplan said. The jury is not told about the ceiling before it deliberates. Bremer is awaiting a ruling from a judge on whether she is entitled to back pay.
Bremer said she was "ecstatic" about the jury's decision. "It sends a strong message that the government's behavior was outrageous," she said.
There was a bit of good news for the Army yesterday, along with continuing bad news. The Army announced it surpassed its active-duty recruiting goal for July with one of its strongest months of the year, but the service is still seriously behind its annual goal for recruits and is likely to miss its target of 80,000 for the fiscal year.
Last month, the Army took in 8,085 recruits to bring the annual total to 55,207, or 88 percent of what the Army had hoped to have by the end of July. With two months left in the fiscal year, the Army would have to average 12,400 recruits in both August and September, something top service officials acknowledge is out of reach.
At the current pace, the Army would fall about 10,000 recruits short by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Service officials have cited a tough recruiting environment, with parents discouraging their children from joining an Army at war. The Army has increased signing incentives and is working on a campaign to convince "influencers" that serving in the military is a noble choice for their children.
The U.S. Army Reserve, which also has been struggling with recruiting, missed its monthly goal in July by 18 percent and is 20 percent off pace for the year.
The United States will begin issuing high-tech passports later this year that State Department officials say will reduce fraud and enhance border security. No word on whether they will do anything to increase satisfaction with passport photos.
The new passports will feature radio frequency chips designed to make the documents work more like employee ID cards that can be passed over an electronic reader. Each chip will contain a digital record of all information printed on the passport, including the holder's name and document number. The chip will also contain the passport holder's photograph, enhanced by facial-recognition technology. If the paper passport is altered, customs agents will be able to compare the information on the chip with the person presenting it.
Critics say terrorists or thieves could use handheld chip readers to identify U.S. citizens, even on a crowded street, anywhere they travel. The State Department is considering adding "anti-skimming" technology to the passports to reduce that risk.
For the moment, officials say, the new gadgetry will not increase costs to consumers -- $97 for a new passport and $67 for a renewal.
-- Christopher Lee and Josh White