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Patrick, Esq.
Patrick, Esq., Lawyer
Category: Employment Law
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Experience:  Significant experience in all areas of employment law.
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My wife suffers from mental illness. I work Social Security

Customer Question

My wife suffers from mental illness. I work for the Social Security Administration (SSA). SSA has approved FEMLA for me due her conditions and also gave me a hardship transfer tor the SSA office nearest to my home due to her condition. The basis for both these requests is that due to her mental illness the time it takes me to respond can be a matter of life or death (substantiated by her Doctor's written statement to support these requests). In a crisis time my wife will call the Management line at my office to indicate her need for me and they find me so I can help her however needed, including leaving to be with her so time is essential.
This past week my wife called the management line to seek my help. This is the number she is directed to call in these events. While she called the management line all phones in our office are to have instruction sheets next to them on how to handle crisis calls and we are to handle them accordingly.. The first call my wife says the person who answered indicated he could not hear her. Management has confirmed receiving a call like this. She made two more calls but she can't remember the order of how they were handled. One call was answered by a person that indicated they could not understand her (she was upset and crying), that no one sat at that desk (this line only rings at management work stations and all are occupied) and eventually hung up. The other call whoever answered was able to understand her and transferred her to my desk extension though most of my work day I am away from my desk. She needed me immediately, but was transferred despite pleading for someone to get me. After her 3 calls she made a fourth call which somehow went to a non-management employee. Office policy is that the number she called is answered by a manager if any are present in the office. There were 4 that day. She expressed her immerdiate need for me due to suicidal thoughts and someone then found me. I got to the phone (at the non managers desk) spoke to my wife for a moment before the line went dead at which point I ran out of the office, sped home but luckily found my wife waiting in our "safe spot" (outside away from her many medications).
My problem is now my wife has lost the security that me being closer brought her. Management has offered the remedy of me being able to have my cell phone on and with me at all times to avoid this again. My wife is now afraid to call me at work at all on any line due to how her calls were treated and her perception of what my employer thinks of me getting calls despite their recent new cell phone accomadation. I have been told by a supervisor that the first call was answered by the Acting Office manager who somehow showed the Supervisor there was no noise on the line. They have offered no information about the next two calls at all. And they have not told me why a non manager answered the final call. I almost feel as though the management team is covering up what they did although I can't be certain they did. Office phone records are kept but nobody has said anything to defend these calls.
I have spent the last week away from work to be with my wife. But I am wondering about returning to work. My wife's condition is now office knowledge. I have serious problems with how the calls were handled when received and how my questions about that are handled. I accept that it is possible that the connection was bad on the first call. But the second and third calls were not handled to my satisfaction or to office policy for crisis situations. I feel damaged and my wife has been damaged. Even with the new cell phone accomadation I don't feel management realizes the gravity of these events. And should I ever find out for sure who handled the second and third calls can I tolerate that. Can I tolerate suspecting everyone in the office? I am thinking I probably will quit ending my Federal career.
So my question is twofold. Do I have recourse against SSA? Secondly, I know washington State where I live, has unemployment laws that allow you to quit a job to care for a family member with a serious illness. As SSA has recognized her illness in both my FEMLA and Hardship transfer requests could they fight an unemployment application made on that basis?
Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Employment Law
Expert:  Patrick, Esq. replied 1 year ago.

Hello and thank you for entrusting me to assist you. My name is ***** ***** I will do everything I can to answer your question.

I am very sorry to hear about your wife's condition and how these crises were handled. From a legal standpoint, though, it is very unlikely that the facts you have described would typically give rise to any meaningful legal recourse against your employer. The first issue you would encounter is damages. In law, you cannot recover for what "might have" happened, only what actually did, and here, it does not seem that you suffered any actual tangible damages as a result of the way these calls were handled. Certainly the thought of what could have happened is frightening, but that is not a recoverable form of damage.

The second issue is one of proving that your employer owed you a duty and breached that duty. These criterion are at the core of all negligence claims. Generally, employer policies are not interpreted by courts as creating binding legal obligations. They are merely guidelines to give employees an idea of how the employer runs their business and how the employer will act in certain circumstances. In other words, the fact your employer may not have followed protocol for how to handle these phones calls probably does not mean you could sue them for it. Furthermore, actually proving they didn't follow protocol would be very difficult here as you have no way of proving that the first call was impossible to understand.

Now, you have an idea solution to the problem, which is that your wife can now contact you directly on your cell phone. I can't think of anything more your employer can do to enable your access to your wife in times of emergencies.

As far as unemployment benefits are concerned, that is a very difficult question. It is true that an employee can collect benefits if the State determines they quit for "good cause," and it is also true that caring for an ill family member can constitute "good cause" as it is defined in this context. However, these things are judged on a purely case by case basis. Also, since you have an ongoing need to be on-call for your wife, you will need to explain how that need prevented you from working further for your current employer but would not impede you from working somewhere else. This is because proving that you are able to immediately accept new work is a requirement for collecting unemployment. In short, you would really have to thread the needle here, and you would have to take the plunge and quit before you'd have any idea how the state would rule on your claim for benefits.

I hope that you find this information helpful. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns regarding the above and I will be more than happy to assist you further.

If you do not require any further assistance, please be so kind as to provide a positive rating of my service so that I may receive credit for assisting you. Very best wishes moving forward.