There must be something in the smoke: a few months ago we blogged the tale of Albert Arroyo, a Boston firefighter who participated in a body building contest while collecting workers comp for an alleged disability. Well, to demonstrate that we harbor neither geographic nor gender prejudices, we tell the tale of Christina Hijjawi, a 37 year-old firefighter from San Francisco. Christina had two work-related problems: an injury to her right shoulder fighting a blaze in December 1998, which left her either off work or assigned to desk duty. Then two years ago, Hijjawi reported suffering a second injury - this one to her right thumb. The thumb problem apparently precluded the performance of her light duty assignment and put her completely out of work.
Unlike Mr. Arroyo, who turned to bodybuilding as part of his rehab effort, Christina became an endurance athlete.
From 2001 to 2006, according to records on the Web site Athlinks, Hijjawi ran in no fewer than a dozen marathons. And her biography on another site shows she was taking on even bigger challenges, including the Canada 2005 Ultraman super triathlon competition - in which competitors swim 6.2 miles, ride a bike for 170 miles and run 52 miles, twice the distance of a marathon. Yikes. It took more than than 33 hours to complete the Ultraman.
In June 2006, she took part in the 50-kilometer Mount Diablo summer trail run, where participants go from the base to the summit of the 3,800-foot Contra Costa landmark and back - and then do it again. Athlinks says she clocked in at eight hours and 31 minutes. Heck, her thumb might be bothering her, but you'd have to rate her aerobic capacity as somewhat above average.
Hijjawi's attorney, Christopher Shea, cautions us from jumping to conclusions. "There's a big difference between competing in a triathlon and running into a burning building with a 150-pound hose." Good point. Just because she can run up a mountain- twice - doesn't mean she can perform the essential functions of a firefighter (including sitting at a desk on light duty).
Paging Dr. Feelgood
Lurking in the shadows of these two dubious disability claims lies the medical profession: somewhere along the line a doctor certified - and recertified - that Hijjawi was unable to perform even light-duty work. This diagnosis was blindly accepted by Christina's employer, the San Francisco fire department, which failed to manage her back to productive employment.
So let's apportion blame where it belongs: to employees with impressive physical capacities who simply don't like their jobs; to doctors who fail to look closely at the medical evidence right before their eyes; to unions who protect and coddle unscrupulous members; and to employers who drop the ball as soon as an employee becomes "disabled."
Taxpayers foot the (substantial) bills for the unproductive lifestyles favored by Arroyo and Hijjawi. In these trying times, we need a much higher level of accountability - starting with the President of the United States and moving down to the public servants who patrol our streets, collect our trash, respond to emergencies and teach our children. They are all our employees and we need to make sure they are performing their jobs to the highest standards.