FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mental Illness in the Workplace

by DAVID MACARAY

I once worked with two schizophrenic men.  When I say “worked with,” I don’t simply mean I was employed by the same company as they, or that I vaguely knew them.  I mean that I had occasion to work side-by-side with each of them for several weeks, as part of a five-man production crew in a manufacturing plant (a paper mill, actually).

I shall call them Carl and Renaldo.  Carl was 33, and Renaldo was 30.  Both were decent workers, both were unmarried (Carl had been married but was divorced), both were polite and earnest in manner, and, in a plant that had enormous tolerance for eccentric behavior, both stood out as slightly “odd.”  Not odd enough to alarm anyone, but definitely odd enough for people to notice and, on occasion, odd enough for people to be made uncomfortable.

Carl would easily become over-animated.  For example, he would laugh way too hard and too loudly at things that weren’t funny.  He also had a habit of standing too close to you when having a conversation, and of looking into your mouth as you spoke.  Instead of looking into your eyes, as most people do when you’re talking to them, Carl stared intently into your mouth, fixated on the place where the words originated.

Although this behavior was unthreatening and harmless, it was a bit distracting and, after a while, fairly annoying.  People were uncomfortable around him.  In truth, most people, especially women, tried to avoid him.  But again, his idiosyncratic behavior never reached the point where people felt it should be reported to management.  Yes, he was a strange duck, but there were plenty of strange ducks working there.

Renaldo was quieter than Carl, but no less “odd.”  He often talked to himself—mumbling, grousing, chuckling quietly, appearing to be engaged in private conversation.  Some crew members generously referred to him as “intense,” others referred to him, less generously, as “psycho,” and because Renaldo was young and had longish hair, others naturally assumed he was on drugs (“Look at that kid,” a middle-aged mechanic once said to me with disdain, “he’s as high as a bleeping kite.”).

How did I know these men were schizophrenics?  As president of the union I was given access to their confidential medical records when each of them was fired.

Carl was fired, technically, for a safety violation.  He had injured himself by reaching into a piece of moving equipment, and was formally suspended (pending an investigation) while still hospitalized.  I didn’t witness the accident, but those who did told me it was the scariest thing they’d ever seen.

He was standing quietly in front of a high-speed packaging machine, when he deliberately reached into it, shattering and splintering his arm.  He went into shock.  When the company informed us he was being terminated for medical reasons, we insisted on knowing what the problem was.  You don’t fire a guy without a specific reason. Because they couldn’t legally share that information, Carl’s mom gave us written permission to see the psychiatrist’s report.  Reading it was heart-breaking.

Renaldo was fired for fighting.  According to the formal write-up, after failing to take his medication for several days, he reported for work on swing-shift and, for no apparent reason, attacked a fellow employee and attempted to choke him.  No one was hurt.  In fact, the employee who was attacked, sensing that something very serious was going on, went to the company and asked that Renaldo not be punished.

At the discharge meeting we were stunned to learn that Renaldo had been hired into the facility already diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and that this fact was known only to the company nurse.  No one in the union or management—not the supervisors, not HR personnel, not even the plant manager—was aware of his illness.

The company’s chief medical officer had made the determination that, so long as Renaldo (whose father worked in the plant) stayed on his meds, he was capable of functioning in a big-time industrial setting.  It was a noble and worthwhile attempt to “mainstream” someone who had a serious but treatable personality disorder.  Alas, neither Carl nor Renaldo ever returned to work.  The union arranged that both be given medical disability retirements.

I don’t know if there’s any “moral” to this story.  While I’m not sure about Carl, had Renaldo continued taking his meds it’s very possible he could’ve kept his job.  After all, he’d already been there a few years, and, other than his “oddness,” was a decent worker.  Not all schizophrenics turn violent or self-destructive.  On the other hand, an HR rep suggested that Renaldo (or Carl, for that matter) could have just as easily carried a gun into the plant, hidden in his lunchbox, and shot someone.

Following these incidents, the union was criticized for not having reported these guys to management.  People said it was our job to protect the membership, and that because Carl and Renaldo were clearly “messed-up,” we’d been derelict in our duty.  But the notion of a union “policing” its own membership—of running to the boss every time someone appeared depressed or was acting “strange”—seemed not only impractical but invasive.

Also, was this solely the responsibility of the union?  What about the people nominally “in charge” of the operation—the shift supervisors and asset leaders?  Didn’t they have an obligation to do something?  No one will ever convince me that they didn’t see the same “peculiarities” we saw.  In any event, even though this all happened a long time ago, memories of those two gentle, well-meaning young men still haunt me.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail