Just say no -- to victimhood

Posted: May 03, 2006 6:05 AM

I always thought victimhood was something to avoid. It meant that something bad was happening to you, something you didn't want. But since today's laws give victims special power and attention, some people seem to aspire to the title of "victim."

What taught me how far things have gone was one small workplace in Ithaca, N.Y., where a group of "victims" said they were being poisoned by the office air. This was odd since the building was in a rural area and the windows could be opened. The air seemed fine to me, but the workers' demands might make you sick.

They complained chemicals emanating from a new rug gave them a zillion different symptoms -- memory loss, headaches, sore throats, "severe mouth infections," a "metal taste in your mouth," "shortness of breath," and "burning, itching, tearing eyes."

Four said they were sick all the time. They said the building gave them a disease called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). This meant just a whiff of copier fluid could disable them. Their doctors went along, declaring them "totally disabled."

Their employer was Tompkins County's Social Services Department, the agency charged with dispensing services to "victims." Is that a coincidence? Or does being in the "victim business" make you susceptible to becoming a victim? I think it's the latter. Servicing victims all day encourages you to focus on things being wrong.

The Social Services Department went out of its way to accommodate its "sick" employees. Tompkins County hired an "environmental expert" to test if there was anything wrong with the building. His tests found no problems, but he acknowledged that the office photocopiers gave off fumes. So the county installed vents to suck any fumes out of the building. One vent cost $3,000.

Not enough! said the workers. They were still sick. So the environmental expert said maybe the problem was the carbonless paper. This is the same paper restaurants use for credit card receipts. It's not known for "chemically assaulting" diners or waiters. If it were, restaurants would quickly stop using it, or they'd go out of business.

In this case, however, the carbonless paper was in the county's offices. The offices were run by bureaucrats. They weren't spending their own money, and they couldn't go out of business. Tompkins County bureaucrats agreed to pay someone to photocopy every single piece of paper so these workers never had to touch it.

Not enough! said the workers. You also have to photocopy every single old form stored in the basement and every single form that's touched carbonless paper. The county did.

But even that wasn't enough to appease these "victims." Margaret Marks said, "I got awful sick." Her co-worker, Claudia Cinquanti, said, "I had to bring her to the emergency room."

So the workers demanded the county make the photocopies elsewhere and keep them in storage for at least 24 hours. The county agreed, and moved all of the new carbonless paper forms into a separate storage area.

But even this wasn't sufficient, said the workers. So the county built them their own special room with its own huge ventilation system, bringing in filtered air from the outside. They installed two air purifiers.

Were the workers finally satisfied? No. They sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, demanding $800 million.

So the county offered to renovate an entire wing of the building, give the new wing to the complaining workers, and move other employees out.

Not enough! the workers told me. "I am going back to work for Tompkins County, whether they like it or not," said one. "I don't care if they have to build a new building. They're going to accommodate me or they are going to pay."

Lonny Dolin, Tompkins County's lawyer, said, "We ripped out all of the carpeting in your rooms. We built you a scientific room. And you won't come back to work because now you say a simple Xerox paper makes you sick. That's not accommodations. They just say, fix the whole building. Make it perfect or blow it up, whatever."

The workers' lawsuits were eventually dismissed, but the legal battle cost the county a fortune.

I say the real victims were the taxpayers.