Government Pays the Price for Making Fed Employees Depressed

When employees are not happy, employers – often unwittingly – pay the price. The author says that federal agency managers must not lose sight of this as they strive to operate with smaller and smaller budgets.

When employees are not happy, employers – often unwittingly – pay the price. Federal agency managers must not lose sight of this causality as they strive to operate with smaller and smaller budgets. For instance, unhappy employees – especially those who are “extremely negative” and “actively disengaged” – can severely impair productivity. In fact, the lost productivity caused by such employees costs the U.S. economy an estimated $250 billion to $300 billion annually.

Lost productivity, however, is not the only thing management should be concerned about if there is a severely unhappy employee within the agency’s ranks, especially if the discriminatory or retaliatory actions of supervisors or co-workers are the sources of his or her depression. That is because, under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, federal employees who are the victims of intentional agency discrimination can recover both pecuniary and non-pecuniary compensatory damages. As such, penny-pinching federal agencies can do themselves – and their employees – a favor by stepping up efforts to curb unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

Pecuniary damages are quantifiable and most commonly take the form of backpay, medical expenses, and other measurable financial harm that is caused by unlawful discrimination. These damages are uncapped under the Civil Rights Act and can be awarded in their proven amount. However for “future pecuniary losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses,” the maximum amount of compensatory damages that can be awarded depends on the size of the agency, as outlined below.

  • <14 employees = $50,000
  • <100 employee = $100,000
  • <200 employees = $200,000
  • >500 employees = $300,000

To determine the amount of future pecuniary losses and non-pecuniary damages a complainant should receive, the EEOC will take into consideration the nature, severity and duration of the discriminatory conduct. In Woodard v. Department of Labor (2002), the EEOC also noted that “an award of compensatory damages for non-pecuniary losses, including emotional harm, should reflect the extent to which the respondent’s discriminatory action directly or proximately caused the harm and the extent to which other factors also caused the harm.” The Commission will also look to case law to make sure its award is consistent with similar cases.

Below is a snapshot of non-pecuniary damages the EEOC has awarded for discriminatory conduct that caused complainants to suffer from various levels of depression.

  • $195,000, Looney v. Department of Homeland Security (2005): Agency’s discrimination caused the complainant to suffer from “bouts of crying; humiliation; depression; destruction of her spirit and confidence; feelings as if she had no purpose in life; fluctuating weight problems; rashes; anxiety; nightmares relating to her supervisor; difficulty coping with life; being tense and unable to sleep when she lays next to her husband in bed; and was disinterested in sexual intercourse.”
  • $100,000, Kann v. Department of the Interior (2005): Agency’s discrimination caused the complainant to suffer for four and a half years from “avoidance of people, crowds, and intense distrust of White males; social isolation and withdrawal, including loss of friends and colleagues; joylessness and loss of sense of humor; distraction and withdrawal from family; relationship with husband severely strained; high levels of stress and anxiety; exacerbation of previously existing migraine, bronchitis, and asthma conditions; menstrual irregularities; gastro-intestinal disorders; cracking of the teeth due to excessive clenching and grinding; heart palpitations; 30 to 40 pound weight gain; foot problems; heartburn; difficulty sleeping; diagnosed with moderately severe depression and generalized anxiety; loss of appetite; diminished energy; and loss of self-esteem and self-respect.”
  • $62,000, Gist v. U.S. Postal Service (2010): Agency’s discrimination caused the complainant to feel depressed and helpless, withdraw from normal activities and become very upset over being labeled as a danger to others.
  • $40,000, Woodard v. Department of Labor (2002): Agency’s discrimination caused the complainant to suffer from major depression, and related symptoms (e.g., mood swings, loss of sleep, weight loss, leave from work for six months)

With the help of an experienced federal employment attorney, federal employees who have been the victims of unlawful discrimination can make sure that they seek compensation for not only past losses in wages, benefits, and medical bills, but also damages to compensate them for any pain and suffering caused by the agency’s unlawful discrimination.

About the Author

Mathew B. Tully is a founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. He concentrates his practice on representing federal government employees and military personnel. To schedule a meeting with one of the firm’s federal employment law attorneys call (202) 787-1900. The information in this column is not intended as legal advice.