It seems straightforward, but avoiding discrimination against people with disabilities sometimes requires understanding what activities the disability affects. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate the needs of workers with disabilities, unless doing so would create undue hardship and expense. That means providing the things that make it possible for people with disabilities to do the job, even when a non-disabled person would not need such an accommodation.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently won a jury trial involving a former Walmart employee with Down syndrome. The jury found that Walmart had failed to reasonably accommodate the woman’s need to maintain a particular schedule, which it could have done without undue hardship or expense. The jury awarded over $125 million to the former employee, although the award is likely to be reduced.
Her disability required a fixed schedule, which had been accommodated for years
The case involved a woman who had been working at a Walmart store in Wisconsin for about 15 years. Her schedule had been regular – 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., either three or four days per week.
In 2014, Walmart set up a computerized scheduling system and the woman’s hours were changed. Although she had initially said she would be available during other periods of time, her 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. shift had become a fixture in her life.
After the schedule change, the woman complained that she could not maintain the new schedule due to her disability. For example, her new schedule threw off her dinner time, which began making her sick.
Her work performance apparently began to suffer. Walmart says she began leaving work early or failing to show up. After about a dozen occasions of this, Walmart fired the woman and later refused to rehire her.
Walmart argued that the woman was not qualified for the position she had successfully held for 15 years. The ADA does not require employers to hire people who are unable to do the work.
At trial, the jury found that the woman’s failure to appear and leaving early were not misconduct but symptomatic of her disability. It determined that Walmart had failed to accommodate her need for a fixed schedule and thus her firing was disability discrimination.
The jury award includes $150,000 in compensatory damages for things like back pay, front pay, litigation costs and interest. It also includes $125 million in punitive damages. Under the ADA, there is a $300,000 cap on damages in most cases.
If you have an employee with a disability and are in the process of negotiating an accommodation, talk to your employment law attorney.