When Supers Become Disabled

When the superintendent of the co-op at 200 East 16th Street started forgetting to do basic duties, turning away plumbers and others who arrived to perform work "without" appointments, and even forgetting he'd ever visited the basement in which he lived and had an office, the board found itself facing a tragic dilemma: What do you do when your super becomes disabled? How do you balance compassion with building safety? What are your rights and their rights under the law, and, if they're union, under the contract?

As these two case studies show, even the most seemingly clear-cut situations may not be easily resolved.

"Disability," first off, is such a broad term that the 2000 U.S. Census puts the number of disabled Americans at 49.7 million, nearly one in five. So, does that mean every building with 10 or 11 staff members averages two disabled workers? No. The census merely counts the number of people claiming self-defined "limitations in physical activities" or "difficulty learning, remembering, or concentrating, difficulty working at a job or business," in the words of Mitchell LaPlante, head of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research's Statistics Center at a 2002 press briefing.

Severe disability is, thankfully, rarer: According to the Census Bureau, 2.2 million Americans use wheelchairs; 6.4 million need a crutch, a cane or a walker; 1.8 million are unable to make out words in a newspaper, even with glasses; 800,000 can't hear normal conversation; 3.5 million have learning disabilities; and 14.3 million have a mental disabilities, including 1.9 million with Alzheimer's disease, senility or dementia.

Make no mistake, many disabled people work and work well all around us. Steven Sanchez, a doorman in Roseville, California, has cerebral palsy and lost most of his vision at birth. "One of my eyes is prosthetic, and if I take a hard fall my retina can fall out of my other eye," he told the local paper. "I can still see out of my left eye, but I can't drive" — a skill fortunately not required for his doorman job, which he performs perfectly well.

Many physical disabilities are, in fact, relatively easy to work around. If your super has a spinal injury and needs a walker, he can probably still perform his essential administrative and boiler-maintenance duties but needs to have other work, such as lifting boxes, done by a porter. That's a "reasonable accommodation," which the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires.

What's much harder to face are mental disabilities — particularly when it's your trusted, much-liked super who's been a fixture of your building for decades. Two such cases in Manhattan unfolded very differently.

Dealing with Dementia

About six years ago, the super of a 50-plus-unit midtown co-op "was out sick for a couple of weeks, then came back, was out again for a couple of days, and then brought us a note from his doctor," remembers Michael Donuk, director of operations for the building's manager, the Argo Corporation. "The diagnosis was dementia," he says gravely.

Donuk's first step was to inform the board. With the super taking sick leave, Donuk brought in a fill-in super. "One of the [other] building staff, thankfully, was certified to run boilers," he says, "and so could step in when the temporary super was off-site overnight." Then, Donuk and the board arranged to meet with the co-op's attorney. With a solid staff in place and things running smoothly, there was no rush to call an emergency meeting. "We had him come to a regular co-op board meeting" not quite a month later.

At that meeting, the attorney formally confirmed that the board needed to let the super go — since, amazingly, despite his own doctor's prognosis, the super wasn't offering to retire even though he'd been there some 40 years and was of retirement age. "The board president then had a conversation with him," Donuk says, "to take it to a more personal level, and [Argo] also prepared the standard termination letter, which the board president gave him after talking with him." The president also spoke with the super's family.

The unionized building then went into negotiations with the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ. "We have contract language on the issue," says Kate Ferranti, deputy director of the 32BJ communications office. "Our stance is that we strive to keep every member productive and on the job, and we handle each situation on a case-by-case basis." In cases of physical disability, "we would work with the employer to figure out a different way to keep the member working."

Sometimes, that involves surprisingly tough saber-rattling; one of the many people involved with the negotiations recalls the union's initial refusal to consider termination, even responding to the dementia issue by replying, "So?" James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow, says the same thing occurred with union negotiations elsewhere. "Their attitude was, 'So, he has dementia. That doesn't mean he can't do his job.'" Ferranti says the union could not comment on those cases.

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