The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power agreed Thursday to “reach out and seek” handicapped persons for employment at the giant utility as part of a settlement in a 6-year-old anti-discrimination lawsuit in federal court.
“DWP is now the first employer in the city to set up an affirmative action program for hiring the handicapped,” said Walter Cochran-Bond, one of the attorneys representing Marie Hickey and the California Assn. for the Physically Handicapped in the 1979 class-action suit.
In the consent decree filed by both sides with U.S. District Judge David W. Williams, the department agreed to spend $30,000 to attract handicapped employees.
“What is so important about this case is that DWP not only agreed to abandon hiring practices discriminating against the handicapped, but went further and said they would reach out and seek to recruit handicapped persons,” said Stanley Fleischman, another lawyer in the case.
The agreement reached Thursday allows the attorneys to monitor the progress of DWP’s handicapped hiring program, and Williams retained jurisdiction over the case for five years “in order to resolve any disputes that may arise.”
Cochran-Bond said he did not foresee problems with enforcing the agreement because DWP “already instituted new procedures during the course of the suit and is taking quite seriously its obligations to live up to both spirit and letter of the law.”
The utility has agreed that in future hiring “the selection rate for handicapped persons into jobs at the DWP shall be at or above the overall selection rate,” according to Deputy City Atty. Terso Rosales.
“This means that if 1,000 people applied for jobs overall and we hired 350 of them, we would look at the handicapped pool of applicants and hire 35% of those,” Rosales explained.
“Even before this agreement, DWP was taking some bold steps to enhance the working environment for the handicapped with special furniture, telephones, parking and work hours to accommodate their needs,” Rosales said.
The lawsuit was filed in 1979, accusing DWP of violating the federal Rehabilitation Act passed six years earlier, which prohibited employers who receive funds from the U.S. government from job discrimination against the handicapped.
Hickey, who worked in a clerical job at the DWP, was the initial plaintiff in the action. She filed the lawsuit, claiming that the department would allow her to be only a temporary employee because the utility classified her as handicapped due to a past history of colitis.
“At the end of her six-month probationary period as a temporary employee, DWP wanted her to leave for one day so they could then rehire her again as a temporary employee, meaning that would be perpetually temporary,” Hickey’s attorney, Anette Klingman, said. “When Marie refused to go along with that, they fired her.
“Back then, colitis was one of a long list of things that DWP regarded as disabling and thus a person was potentially handicapped. Even a person with a sore toe might be regarded in the handicapped category, according to DWP’s old procedures.”
Hickey was later offered her job back by the DWP, the attorney said, but after eight months without employment, she had found another job with a private employer in Pomona and has remained there.
As part of the agreement filed with the federal court Thursday, the DWP agreed to pay Hickey $12,500 for her loss of pay and benefits.
“Naturally, I am glad for myself,” Hickey said, “but even more gratifying is that the outcome of my lawsuit will benefit a large group of handicapped persons in the future. That is really important.”