The State Department agreed to settle a legal challenge to its medical clearance policy that alleged it discriminated against Foreign Service candidates with disabilities.
The dispute, spanning more than a decade, took issue with the department’s “worldwide availability” hiring requirement, which said that Foreign Service officer candidates must be able work at any of the State Department’s 270 overseas posts without a need for ongoing medical treatment, including at “hardship” stations with limited access to care.
That standard violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the claims alleged, by unfairly delaying and denying employment to applicants with disabilities, even if they’re suitable to work at most, but not all, posts. The law is similar to the the Americans with Disabilities Act in that it prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities in federal programs.
Bryan Schwartz, an attorney representing the class, told Federal Times in an interview that ineligibility was determined without considering reasonable accommodations or having a dialogue with a candidate or their doctor, as the law requires.
“It’s really kept out countless people,” he said. “Not only the people who were outright denied clearance resulting in their denied employment for career Foreign Service jobs, which is in this class, but also anybody who might have been considering a Foreign Service career ...”
If the agreement receives final approval at a hearing in March, the department said it plans to extend conditional offers of employment to many of the class members. The department also expected to pay $37.5 million to settle the case and revise the requirement that triggered the dispute.
The new policy would say generalists and non-medical specialists will only need to be medically cleared to serve at a handful of resourced posts, specifically the designated Regional Medical Evacuation Centers in Bangkok, London, Singapore and Pretoria, South Africa. A separate revised minimum standard has been agreed to for medical specialists.
If there is any doubt of a candidate’s ability to work, the proposed settlement then calls for an “interactive process” with the applicant and their medical provider to see if they can meet the clearance with a reasonable accommodation.
“That dialogue would not have been performed previously,” Schwartz said.
The class agent, Doering Meyer, said she was denied employment after being disqualified from worldwide availability due to her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a condition that affects the nervous system. That decision failed to consider she had been living in remission for years, according to press releases from her attorney’s office.
Meyer was able to secure a waiver and began working in the Foreign Service, where she is still employed today. That was a victory in its own right, but she said she wanted to ensure this policy didn’t discourage future candidates from this kind of work.
Meyer was assigned to a post in July 2008 and the next month, she moved to convert her complaint from individual to class.
“When I suffered the injustice of being denied medical clearance, and thus, was initially denied hire by the Department of State, I wanted to work to eliminate it for others who followed,” Meyer said to Federal Times in an email from her post in Chad. “My service in these places and this settlement are a complete vindication of what my attorney and I have known all along – that people with disabilities are just as capable and willing to work representing this country abroad as anyone else.”
Meyer added that two of her five posts have been at “hardship” locations in Cairo and N’Djamena, Chad.
Between 2006 and 2008, official documents say the Office of Medical Services denied worldwide availability clearances for 49 Foreign Service candidates, 46 of whom were in the State Department. Several departments employ members of the Foreign Service.
“This is an important step forward in the Department’s efforts to create a workforce that reflects the full diversity of the American people and ensure we have the best team representing the United States abroad,” the department said in a prepared statement on Jan. 17. “Our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse, dynamic perspectives power our diplomatic efforts.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.