Upper Marlboro, MD – A former Prince George’s County correctional officer said he was fired for have a prosthetic foot, and he wants his job back.
Prince George’s County Correctional Sergeant Joseph Watts had just been made acting lieutenant when his doctor told him they needed to amputate his foot because of complications with his diabetes, WRC reported.
“The decision was made to go ahead and remove the foot, which they did a below the knee amputation,” Watts said.
He initially put off the surgery for work.
“I recently was promoted to lieutenant, acting lieutenant, and I didn't want that to affect my promotion because I worked so hard for it,” Watts told WRC.
It was a rough recovery, but the 15-year veteran of the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections said that he got through it by staying focused on returning to work.
“I had my stumbles and I had my falls, but I got up and kept going,” Watts said.
But he had a short-lived celebration when his doctor finally cleared him to return to work full duty at the jail.
The Department of Corrections told Watts that he had to pass an agility test before he could return to duty, WRC reported.
The agility test is something that is usually given only to brand new recruits, and never to veteran officers returning from medical leave with clearance from their physician.
Prince George’s Correctional Lieutenant Tammie Owens, the president of the union who represents the correctional officers, said that she’s never seen an agility test administered to a veteran officer in her 30 years of working there, WRC reported.
Watts took the test, and failed. So he was placed on light duty by his supervisors.
“I believe that was a means to try to discourage me,” Watts said.
The union boss agreed with him, WRC reported.
“The department - not his doctor - but the department placed him on light duty,” Lt. Owens said. “Even when his doctor was giving him documentation saying you're full duty, they wanted more, more, more and was not allowing him to come off in a full-duty status.”
But Correctional Sgt. Watts did as he was ordered and returned to work light duty, WRC reported.
Lt. Owens said that after he returned to work, Sgt. Watts did everything that he would have done on full duty, except patrol the cell block.
And the lieutenant said he didn’t patrol the cell block because his supervisors told him not to, not because his doctors restricted him, WRC reported.
Eleven months later, the Department of Corrections informed Sgt. Watts that he had used up all his light duty time and so he was fired.
The former correctional officer said that he had a good record for his entire 15 years of employment by the county and never received a bad review or was cited for bad behavior, WRC reported.
Watts said that he can still do his job – at full duty – and he wants his job back.
“Working in this field of work, where we are given care, custody and control over other people's family members, and if you treat me like this, one of your own, what do we expect how you’re going to treat them?” he asked.
Watts and his union representatives are scheduled to appeal his termination to the county personnel board in October, according to WRC.
He said he has also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Denise Clark, an employment attorney who specialized in disability discrimination, said that complaints like Watts has made are becoming more common.
“The agencies tend to not want to embrace what the [Americans with Disabilities Act] is today,” said Clark, who does not represent Watts.
“It's a much broader statute,” she explained. “It provides employees with greater rights with regards to demonstrating not just that they have an impairment, but that there is an accommodation that can be provided to them so that they can continue to work.”