Don Dew was humiliated. Interviewing for the top job at the Idaho Human Rights Commission this past September, Dew disclosed to Idaho Department of Labor Director Ken Edmunds that he had suffered a previous disability. But when Edmunds challenged him on whether he could conduct himself in a normal 40-hour week, "He made me feel like I was less than a person, " Dew said. "I have never been embarrassed like that. Never, ever..." he added after a long breath.
Of all the people in Idaho who ought to know better, Edmunds—sworn to uphold Idaho's labor laws—should know that it's illegal to cite someone's disability as a barrier to employment. Appointed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter in November 2013, Edmunds oversees the Idaho Human Rights Commission. In 2010, Otter slid the commission, which had previously been an independent entity, into the Department of Labor's organization chart. The move was a compromise; that same year, Otter made some controversial remarks that he would have rather seen the commission go away entirely, proposing that it be dissolved over four years. Following significant public outcry, Otter instead moved IHRC over to the Labor Department offices on Boise's Main Street.
Now, Edmunds is in the precedent-setting position of being the subject of a human-rights complaint: The IDOL director, Idaho Human Rights Commission and Labor Department have all been named in a formal complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging Edmunds acted improperly this past September while interviewing Dew. When Dew told Edmunds that several years ago an infection triggered seizures that required medication—but that he hadn't experienced any such seizures in more than three years—Dew said Edmunds looked at him as if "he was smelling a dirty diaper."
"Can you even work a 40-hour week?" Dew recalled Edmunds saying, expressing doubt over Dew's ability to perform the tasks of the administrative position.
"I was stunned," said Dew.
Upon hearing of the claim, Erika Birch, one of Idaho's top labor attorneys with Boise law firm Strindberg & Scholnick, told Boise Weekly, "If what Mr. Dew says is true, this is exactly why we have the Americans with Disabilities Act—to counteract against stereotypical assumptions about people with disabilities. Unless someone is asking every potential employee the same question, then you're revealing bias."
While Dew's claim of discrimination based on disability is now in the hands of the feds, EEOC investigators and Idaho officials are remaining tight-lipped. But Boise Weekly has learned through interviews and internal documents that Dew had been considered a prime candidate to become IHRC's next top administrator—talking salary and possible start dates with IHRC board members while the state was picking up his airfare and hotel tab for a September trip to Boise. All of that optimism ground to a halt when Dew came face-to-face with Edmunds.