ASH worker files claim over disability rights

Thomas Perez, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome last year, claims ASH didn’t provide equal employment opportunities.
Thomas Perez, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome last year, claims ASH didn’t provide equal employment opportunities. The Tribune

The state is investigating a discrimination claim brought against Atascadero State Hospital by a worker who says he wasn’t provided equal employment opportunities within state disability laws to do his job.

Office technician Thomas Perez was diagnosed last year with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder that reduces his ability to communicate in social situations. Asperger’s is also described as a high functioning version of autism.

Perez, 21, also states in the claim brought last December that co-workers and supervisors harassed him at the office about his disorder after learning of his diagnosis.

Perez has been a data entry clerk at ASH since 2008. But since October 2010, he’s been on various forms of paid and unpaid administrative leave for working conditions associated with the discrimination claim.

ASH administrators declined to comment on the case, saying it’s a personnel matter, but they confirmed Perez is still employed with the hospital.

The problems began in early 2010, Perez said, when he was moved from a quiet corner of an office into an area with more people, whom he characterized as loud and distracting.

“When I hear something, I get a rush of information tied to that, and it can be really intrusive and that’s really difficult for me,” Perez said.

After several months of working in the new environment, Perez said, his stress levels increased and he experienced nausea and anxiety. He was in and out of work and eventually sought medical help, which led to his diagnosis. Continued panic attacks ultimately led to his administrative leave.

Before leaving, Perez said, he filed four requests with hospital administrators for items he hoped would make the busy office atmosphere easier on him.

At the recommendation of his psychiatrist, Perez asked for a desk partition — similar to a cubicle wall — and a music device with headphones to help block noise.

According to letters Perez provided from ASH, officials there first declined his requests, then later said headphones could be provided with no music device. After he contested, they later offered a short partition and to move him into another room.

But Perez said those allowances weren’t good enough because the partial partition was too short to block sound, the headphones without music didn’t do anything, and the new room was with the same people who harassed him.

The state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, an agency that reviews job-related discrimination and harassment claims, is looking into the matter.

Perez said earlier this month that he wouldn’t proceed with a lawsuit associated with the discrimination claim because he’s seeking change, not compensation, “so people like me aren’t pushed aside.”

The state has until December to complete its investigation.

Perez said he would prefer to return to work if his supervisors would allow him his requests.

The state has received eight other complaints against ASH from employees alleging discrimination since 2001. The nature of the cases was not disclosed.

Of them, three were closed after state investigations revealed insufficient evidence; one was outside the department’s jurisdiction; three were closed because the complainants planned to sue, which meant the state had to stop investigating; and one was closed after a settlement agreement, the department’s Chief Deputy Director Annmarie Billotti said.