The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs convened for its weekly meeting in the Regent’s Room of the Fleming Administration Building Monday afternoon to discuss the Fitness for Duty policy.
Much of the group’s discussion centered on language regarding revision of the policy and its accompanying professional standards as they relate to University faculty and staff. The Fitness for Duty policy offers protections to University employees in the event that they find themselves physically or mentally unable to perform their jobs, including possible financial compensation during their investigation and one year of severance pay if they are let go due to their condition.
SACUA Chair Scott Masten, a professor of business economics and public policy, said the group was making progress and had recently heard from the Office of the Provost about the “source of conflict” regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and the University’s current standards of fitness for duty and medical conditions.
Currently, the ADA places emphasis on “job performance,” and not the reason the individual is unable to perform their job, unless they choose to disclose their disability. The law specifically forbids officials from making assumptions about the reason a faculty member is failing to perform their job functions unless they voluntarily confirm their disability.
“We have to make it clear that any fitness for duty policy will only apply to faculty with mental or physical illness that keeps them from adequately performing their duties,” Masten said. “There’s no way to meet both the ADA requirements and cover only physical and medical conditions if (this interpretation of) the ADA is right.”
He added that working to create a policy that suits the needs of the University while complying with ADA standards will continue to be a group effort, and that the next step is getting a second opinion from a “foremost expert” in the Law School.
Masten then compared the proposed language with that of the University’s existing fitness for duty policy, which currently applies to all University faculty and staff. Fitness for duty is currently defined as “being physically and mentally capable of safely performing the duties of their job,” and implies that anything outside of those standards constitutes “unfitness for duty.”
“Either the current policy is not compliant with the ADA, which, who knows, maybe it was just never updated, so if we don’t agree to implement the new fitness for duty policy, we’d be better off with (the ADA’s version) than the one we currently have,” Masten said. “Part of the reason for the new policy was it doesn’t encompass all the considerations that would go into an appropriate consideration for faculty, but at least this one is limited to mental and physical conditions.”
Most SACUA members agreed that there was a need for specific language regarding mental and physical conditions since those are the main reasons for which a fitness for duty investigation would be opened initially.
Pharmacy Prof. David Smith said he felt the ability to “safely execute one’s duties” should be the key requirement for being classified fit for duty, leaving out mention of specific mental or physical health requirements. According, to Smith, such requirements might make the language more in accordance with ADA standards, but many other members wanted to keep the language in the revised policy.
Smith added that there are other probable factors that could potentially render faculty members “unable to perform essential functions” outside of mental and physical complications, but it was deemed that most other suggested behaviors would dictate “willful refusal,” which would amount to insubordination, a cause for termination that does not apply to any fitness for duty policy.
“There are experts who can provide examinations for medical issues, mental and physical,” Masten said. “If it’s a non-medical issue, who’s going to make that determination?”
Currently, non-medical issues are at the discretion of the dean of the faculty member’s college, who would then open an investigation to determine whether the individual is capable of continuing to work. The group concluded that this process could be seen as “arbitrary” and that they wanted to work toward a more concrete policy.
“We’d have a lot less concern about this if we were having medical professionals making this call,” Masten said. This led to discussion about excluding those without physical or mental limitations from the protections of the policy.
Next Monday, SACUA will be joined by University Provost Martha Pollack. The following week, they will have their monthly check-in with University President Mark Schlissel at their regularly scheduled meeting.