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Government botanist barred from job, but still gets paid

February 24, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Zella Ellshoff draws her pay as a botanist for the Fish and Wildlife Service office, but she never goes to work. The agency won’t let her.

The Fish and Wildlife Service fired Ellshoff from her job in St. Paul, Minn., in 1994 after she missed 10 weeks of work because of depression.

An administrative judge for the Merit Systems Protection Board ordered her rehired with back pay. The agency has appealed his decision and put Ellshoff on paid leave last March, telling her she would be disruptive at the office.

Now an advocacy group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is asking the Interior Department’s inspector general to investigate whether the dispute is hurting the agency’s enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

``I feel guilty,″ Ellshoff said Monday. ``It was my life. I went to school many year and worked many years to learn the skills to do the job.″

Ellshoff is the only botanist in the Minneapolis regional office, which serves an eight-state region stretching from Indiana to Minnesota. Her job was to write recovery plans for endangered plants and to identify other rare species that might need federal protection.

Jeff Ruch, a lawyer for the employees group, said: ``The Fish and Wildlife Service has really been hit by a lot of budget shortfalls. For them to spend two years salary for her not to show up to do work in addition to paying the lawyers’ fees ... is insane.″

A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Rick Greenblat, declined to comment on Ellshoff’s case. ``The work is being done. The program is not being damaged by her absence,″ he said.

Ellshoff, 47, was fired in December 1994 shortly after returning to work following the 10-week absence. The agency said she had not requested the leave in advance, didn’t submit acceptable medical evidence to justify the time off and couldn’t do her job when she returned.

The administrative judge, however, ruled in February 1996 that the agency had sufficient notice of her condition and that she was entitled to 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The agency then notified Ellshoff that she was being put on ``paid non-duty status″ because she ``would be unduly disruptive to the work environment.″

The letter did not elaborate, but the judge’s decision cited instances in which she had complained about fellow workers.

Ellshoff declined to discuss details of her case, citing the advice of her attorney.

Ellshoff went to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu in 1990 and transferred to the St. Paul office in 1993. She received a promotion in late 1993. Her resume lists several awards from the agency, including two for ``superior performance″ and one for ``special achievement.″

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