ANNA KANWIT is already a busy woman, but the city's human resources director says the phone's been ringing more since 2011.
Kanwit gets "a lot of calls," from employers and cities curious about Portland's decision, back then, to discourage staffers from wearing perfumes, colognes, and other fragrances to work. In a society that seems to grow more sensitive every day to the many chemicals surrounding us, she says Portland crafted a "cutting edge" policy.
"Wearing fragrance can have an adverse impact on employees, and you don't have to do it," Kanwit says of the city rule. "'What's the point?' is basically what we're saying."
Fragrance-free policies like the one city council unanimously adopted in February 2011 have been around for decades, but Portland is in the vanguard of cities that have created blanket policies for city workers. Even more rare: It did so without a lawsuit spurring the new rule.
But a lawsuit found city hall anyway.
In June, city officials signed a financial settlement with a Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) employee who says her repeated entreaties and serious medical emergencies due to coworkers' fragrances were largely ignored. The $15,000 settlement awarded to PBOT maintenance worker Julee Reynolds is a minuscule hit to city finances, but it raises questions about how bureaus are abiding by the fragrance-free policy, and how successfully the city can protect itself from similar litigation.
"Sometimes," Kanwit says, "the process doesn't go as well as it should, or actions aren't taken as quickly as they should be."
According to the policy approved three and a half years ago, "employees are asked to refrain from the use of personal scented products in the workplace where the sole purpose is to produce a scent." A supplement to the rule makes clear it's "not mandatory," but notes "employees who are sensitive to perfumes and chemicals suffer serious health consequences when exposed to such products."
The policy is fairly prominent. Kanwit sends out an annual reminder, and workers say it's cut down on the number of colleagues who bathe in floral unguents.
"Management took it seriously and did attempt to deal with it," says Ellen Vanderslice, who advocated for the policy as PBOT's manager of capital projects (she's since retired). "That was effective."
That's hard to square with the lawsuit. A utility locator for PBOT, Reynolds suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition that means exposure to certain compounds can send her into a tailspin. The condition divides doctors—many argue it's purely psychological—but there's no doubt the reactions experienced by MCS sufferers can be serious.
Reynolds, as part of her settlement, is prohibited from discussing the case, and her lawyer didn't respond to the Mercury's inquiry. But the lawsuit offers plenty of detail. Beginning in 2010, Reynolds said, a coworker started wearing a "scented product" that set off reactions like difficulty breathing, chest tightness, headaches, and vomiting. Reynolds asked the employee to stop, and even brought in a doctor's note explaining her plight, but says she was repeatedly exposed to the same offensive stuff over the next three years. In June 2011, she had an anaphylactic reaction and had to be admitted into Legacy Emanuel's intensive care unit.
Reynolds says she invoked the Americans with Disabilities Act, pleading with superiors to rearrange her workspace, put up signs and a fan, and enforce the fragrance-free policy, but that "the city refused to implement" her suggestions.
Eventually, after Reynolds got the group Disability Rights Oregon to advocate for her, her desk was moved in April 2012. But the problem persisted. She complained to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries that same month. In May 2013, she sued for $50,000, claiming the city failed to accommodate her disability.
"Ms. Reynolds has continued to report the chemical exposures, but all of her reports have fallen on deaf ears," the suit says.
It's unclear from court documents exactly how PBOT attempted to correct Reynolds' situation in the years leading up to the lawsuit. According to the legal settlement, the city made "modifications" by December 2013—such as enforcing the fragrance policy, posting signs about the policy, and training employees.
Both Kanwit and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who first pushed for the policy, offered more details. They say multiple coworkers of Reynolds were eventually told to stop using fragrances, and that the employees complied. (A request for the number of warnings and disciplinary actions issued under the fragrance policy wasn't answered as of press time.)
"It sounds like when the complaint was made, it was taken seriously," says Fritz. "Accommodations were made. That's how it's supposed to be."
But if that's the case, why did Portland take a $15,000 hit? City documents indicate an investigation found "there is a risk the city may be found liable," in the suit. (Past lawsuits have been far more expensive than Portland's. In 2010, a Detroit city employee settled for $100,000 in a similar suit.)
Fritz says the payout was an acceptable outcome, keeping the city out of a lengthy court battle and giving Reynolds closure.
"Many of the settlements that council approves [are cases] I believe we have a good chance of winning if it goes to court," she says.
Kanwit, meanwhile, says these cases are designed to be addressed before litigation, as part of the "interactive process" of working with an affected employee. The hope is that scenarios like Reynolds'—where the city insists it made an effort and still paid thousands—are a rarity.
"If we can't control it," Kanwit says, "that is a problem, obviously."