$6.6M settlement for Social Security workers with disabilities gets preliminary approval

Government And Institutions Associated Press

A federal administrative law judge in Baltimore has given preliminary approval to a $6.6 million settlement for more than 570 current and former Social Security Administration employees with disabilities.

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The deal would resolve a nearly decade-long dispute over promotions and accommodations. A final approval hearing is set for March.

The action, filed in 2005 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accuses the Social Security Administration of denying employees advancement because of disabilities.

An agency spokeswoman says the settlement, which got preliminary approval on Oct. 30, isn't an admission of wrongdoing.

It "reaffirms our steadfast commitment to a talented diverse workforce," said Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin.

Dan Goldstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the settlement represents a significant step toward eradicating discrimination against disabled individuals in federal agencies.

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"This is more than just the end of a protracted case," Goldstein said. "The Social Security Administration decided to take head-on a problem that's endemic in federal agencies. Implicit bias against people with disabilities is everywhere, and this settlement takes that issue head-on."

Goldstein said many of the plaintiffs, during their tenure at SSA, were denied promotions "not just once, not just twice, but 15 or more times." Goldstein said the employees were denied even though they applied for the promotion in question and made the most qualified list.

Apart from the monetary award, the settlement aims to systematically change how the Administration treats its disabled employees.

The agreement calls for an overhaul of the SSA's existing reasonable accommodation process and establishes a centralized office staffed to handle requests from disabled employees.

"If there's a deaf employee saying in order to fully participate he's going to need an interpreter or a real-time transcription service, now those decisions will go to an office with the background and expertise to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution."

Part of the agreement calls for the creation of a new supervisory board to ensure that the terms of the settlement are being met. Three members will be selected by the SSA, and three by the plaintiffs' attorneys. In addition, the SSA will offer opportunities for employees to enroll in workshops and mentorship programs, and will within two years require all employees participate in sensitivity training focusing on individuals with disabilities.