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October 25, 2001
Walking a Tightrope With Traumatized Workers
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first responsibility for corporate managers after the Sept. 11 terrorism was to help employees deal with their grief and fear.

But now, according to The New York Times, they are also having to face up to another task: preparing for possible legal action from those same employees.

As the Times reports, it's a delicate balancing act. But employment lawyers and workplace specialists have been advising employers in New York and across the country to examine anew state and federal laws that could cause them legal or financial headaches.

The newspaper says these can range from the threat of lawsuits for failing to abide by the Americans With Disabilities Act to the inconvenience of having to ask employees for permission to deposit paychecks automatically into their bank accounts.

"There are so many laws that were once on the back burner but that are now suddenly coming forward," said Peter J. Petesch, a partner in the Washington office of Ford & Harrison, an Atlanta law firm.

With ADA, for instance, it is not always clear who is covered, leaving some employers to wonder what their responsibilities are to people who say the attacks have left them emotionally distraught.

Other difficult questions include:

- Whether employers risk lawsuits if they dismiss employees who refuse to be relocated to other offices, and whether such people are eligible for unemployment benefits.

- Whether employees who request time off for reasons related to the attacks are eligible for the 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave stipulated in the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.

- Whether companies can be sued if expatriate Americans who are denied requests to return to the U.S. are injured or killed in future terrorist attacks.

- What special measures employers should institute to prevent workplace harassment of people of Mideastern origin.

- What companies' legal requirements are toward employees who are called to active military duty.

So far, few employment lawyers are reporting legal actions by workers against their employers, but the scale of the national trauma makes it almost inevitable that some disputes will wind up in court, the Times reports.

Joan Caruso, a partner at the Ayers Group, a career management consulting firm in Manhattan, said that nearly all the employees that her company had voluntarily counseled at more than a dozen Wall Street firms had expressed concerns about going back to work or returning to New York.

And that, in turn, is creating confusion among employers, said Orna Guralnik, a Manhattan clinical psychologist who is also a partner at WorkLab Consulting, a Manhattan firm.

"Managers have repeatedly told us that they have people who want to stay home," and don't know whether to let them, Guralnik said.

Here's another problem: David B. Ross, managing partner of the New York office of Seyfarth Shaw, a law firm in Chicago, told the Times that after the attacks, his office heard from a number of Manhattan companies that were reeling from the attacks but wanted to avoid layoffs. So they wondered whether they could have employees work less than five days for less than full pay.

It turned out they could not legally do so, because the Fair Labor Standards Act only allows employers to dock the pay of wage earners, not managers or supervisors who are paid weekly or monthly salaries.

To comply with the act, companies would have had to reclassify their managerial employees as part-time workers, a hard administrative task, said William P. Perkins, a Seyfarth Shaw partner, who added that most of the companies opted for layoffs.

Melody L. Jones, the chief human resources officer at the Aon Corporation, which lost 200 employees in the attacks, said she was prepared for the possibility that some survivors would develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which can set off nonstop nightmares and often debilitate victims.

Jones said that a few employees had asked for medical leaves to take time off for emotional health.

"Right now our people are so focused on simply getting through this," she said.

As for Mr. Ferranti of Morgan Stanley, he is easing his way back into the workplace. His company has been sensitive to employees' fears, he says, allowing them to return to their jobs at their own pace. On his first day back, Mr. Ferranti worked for four hours and then returned home.

"It is comforting being back with fellow employees," he said. But, he added, "Right now, I don't want to be surrounded by people."

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