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Cafeteria worker entitled to disability retirement


A cafeteria worker is entitled to service-connected disability retirement benefits.

In Quel v. Board of Trustees, Employees Retirement System, the Supreme Court of Hawaii unanimously vacated on Thursday an appellate court’s decision to deny the worker benefits on the basis that the risks she faced were not different than those in most other occupations.

Debbie Quel had been an elementary school cafeteria helper for nearly two decades, and her daily duties included lifting heavy trap doors, scooping rice for 250 trays, pinching dough, peeling potatoes, cutting vegetables, opening numerous cans with a manual can opener, cooking vats of rice in the oven, carrying heavy boxes of foods and serving meals. She said the school did not have equipment common to other school cafeterias — such as rice cookers, electric can openers and machines for cutting bread and vegetables — which increased the repetitive labor she was required to perform each day.

On Nov. 13, 2008, she was evaluated for swollen hands and painful shoulders allegedly caused by repetitive motion at work. She was diagnosed with various work-related injuries and underwent multiple surgeries on her shoulders, wrists, fingers and thumb. On Nov. 22, 2010, she filed for service-connected disability retirement benefits, alleging that she had been “permanently incapacitated for duty … as the cumulative result” of an occupational hazard.

The Employees Retirement System of Hawaii’s board of trustees denied her claim on the grounds that the working conditions that caused Ms. Quel’s incapacity did not constitute an “occupational hazard” under Hawaii law and that the risks of her job were not different from most other occupations. The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. She appealed to the state’s high court, asking the justices to answer whether cumulative trauma from her job duties is an occupational hazard entitling her to service-connected disability retirement benefits.

The Hawaii Supreme Court held that Ms. Quel was entitled to benefits and reversed the appellate court’s decision. Although the board claimed that Ms. Quel failed to introduce evidence that the lifting requirements of her job were different from those in other occupations, the justices found that the board erred in concluding that the definition of occupational hazard for the purposes of service-connected disability retirement benefits is limited to only a few occupations or that Ms. Quel’s incapacity did not result from a risk inherent to her job.

The court held that the cumulative, repetitive work performed by Ms. Quel, “especially without the proper equipment, which led to the serious injuries … requiring multiple surgeries to her shoulders, wrists, fingers, and thumb, and resulting in her permanent incapacity for duty, is not a risk common to employment in general.”

As a result, the board vacated the appellate court’s judgment and remanded the case to the board for further proceedings consistent with the court’s opinion.




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