Bureaucratus: You booze, you lose

A case recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals should send a warning signal to those who don't consider drinking on the job a serious offense.

The case in point involved two Army helicopter mechanics. On Aug. 1, 1999, the Army fired helicopter facility workers Curtis Edwards and Ernest Rodriguez for being under the influence of alcohol based on Breathalyzer test results. Edwards and Rod-riguez filed appeals with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). "Eddie and me weren't acting like we had a buzz on, so what gave you the right to insist that we take those Breathalyzer tests?" Rodriguez asked. They also questioned the reasonableness of the penalties and (paradoxically) raised the defense of disability (alcoholism) discrimination. To me, that's like killing your parents and then pleading for mercy because you're an orphan!

Meanwhile, both were working under so-called firm-chance agreements, which the Army had imposed because of previous on-the-job use of alcohol. These agreements are last-chance, shape-up-or-ship-out agreements.

The MSPB at first ruled that they were guilty but reduced the punishment to a 120-day suspension. The Army then appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. These guys had to go! The court said that the MSPB judge correctly considered the evidence and testimony and found that the Army had the right to require them to take Breathalyzer tests, consistent with the firm-chance agreements. Because they tested positive for alcohol, the judge was correct in determining that they had violated the terms of their firm-chance agreements and that the Army had proved its charges.

The court then examined the punishment meted out by the MSPB, which had been reduced because of Edwards and Rodriguez's long tenure with the Army, their discipline-free service, their participation in rehabilitation programs and the fact that both were returned to duty for a period before the removal proposals. The MSPB also gave significant weight to the testimony of their supervisor who said he had confidence in their abilities and wanted them to return to work.

The Army argued that too much weight was given to the supervisor's testimony and that not enough weight was given to the clear notice given to Edwards and Rodriguez that one further positive Breathalyzer result would provide sufficient grounds for their removal. The Army also said that too little consideration was given to the seriousness of their behavior.

The court agreed 100 percent with the Army and ruled that the supervisor's opinion wasn't enough to overcome the Army's judgment about the seriousness of the misconduct and the appropriateness of the penalty.

The bottom line: These guys were habitual boozers and boozed it up one time too many. I have little compassion for people who are given a last chance and blow it.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached via e-mail at miltzall@ starpower.net.

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