- A federal district court has awarded an employee five years' front pay after he was injured on the job, denied an accommodation and then fired (Willich v. Sanderson Farms, Inc. (Processing Division), No. 6:16-CV-340 (W.D. Texas, April 17, 2018)).
- Robert Willich worked as a custodian at Sanderson Farms Inc. and sued the poultry processor when he was terminated after the injury. Willich, who was 49 years old and had a criminal history, told the court that, after applying for 90 jobs, the only work he could find was delivering pizzas at a fraction of the salary and benefits he received at Sanderson. Following a trial, a jury found for Willich on all of his claims.
- The court noted that Willich kept an “unglamorous job” for 30 months in a company where the annual turnover rate exceeded 50%. And while job hunting, he had a conditional offer of employment withdrawn after an examination of his medical records. Those factors, combined with his criminal history, made it more than likely that Willich would have stayed with Sanderson Farms for another five years, the court concluded.
Employers often struggle with accommodation requirements. Both federal and many state laws require that employers provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee's disability, unless the company would suffer an undue hardship as a result.
Accommodations can include alterations to facilities; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; leave; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; or reassignment to a vacant position, according to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance document.
The federal law governing accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, favors an informal, interactive accommodation process, which means that as soon as an employer knows or should know that an employee needs something because of a physical or mental impairment, the company's responsibility to accommodate is triggered. Failing to engage in the interactive process isn't a stand-alone violation, at least under federal law, but it can be evidence of discrimination.
Experts regularly cite front-line managers as a major source of these violations. Employers can train supervisors to listen for these cues and then to escalate requests to HR as needed.