A Kansas Walmart store violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to provide two deaf employees access to an American Sign Language interpreter while on the job and subjected them to discrimination based on their disabilities, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged in a lawsuit filed Sept. 8.
EEOC said the employees began working as overnight stockers for the Olathe, Kansas, store in 2019. The workers requested ASL interpreters for use during orientation, meetings and at other times throughout their employment, but Walmart allegedly told the workers it could not provide interpreters, citing affordability concerns.
Instead, Walmart designated a supervisor to interpret for the plaintiffs, per the suit, despite the fact that the supervisor was not a qualified ASL interpreter and had little knowledge of sign language. As a result, EEOC alleged the employees routinely missed out on critical information communicated verbally during meetings, including safety-related meetings.
The plaintiffs also requested that Walmart communicate job-related information — such as assignments — in writing, but company managers “frequently failed to effectively communicate in writing and sometimes refused to communicate in writing at all,” the agency said.
The alleged failure to provide reasonable accommodations negatively impacted the workers’ employment and led to confusion and misunderstandings regarding training, disciplinary actions and assignments, per EEOC.
The commission cited an instance in which one of the plaintiffs received a write-up for a mistake that “did not adequately or clearly communicate the reason for the write-up” and left the employee unable to understand how to prevent future discipline, it alleged.
Both employees had resigned from Walmart by November 2021 but alleged that their resignations were based on the adverse conditions to which they were subjected, according to the suit. EEOC filed the action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.
In an email to HR Dive, Walmart said it is reviewing the complaint and would respond in court “as appropriate.”
“We have been a top employer for those with disabilities for years,” the company said. “We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind and take allegations like this seriously.”
As with other impairments that meet the ADA’s disability definition, employers must provide an accommodation that would allow a person with a hearing impairment to perform their job as long as doing would not pose an undue hardship, according to EEOC guidance.
If more than one accommodation may be effective, the agency has said that while an employee’s preference should be given primary consideration, employers need not provide the employee’s accommodation of first choice, a legal principle borne out in recent federal court decisions. An easier or less costly accommodation must nonetheless be effective in meeting an employee’s needs, according to EEOC.
“The purpose of the ADA is not just to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities, but to ensure that they receive reasonable accommodations so they can be successful, productive members of our country’s workforce,” Andrea G. Baran, regional attorney for EEOC’s St. Louis district office, said in a press release announcing the suit. “These accommodations are not only required by law, but they are good for businesses, our communities, and our economy.”
The agency has previously sued employers for refusing to provide ASL interpreters as an accommodation. In one 2021 suit against a Hawaii-based staffing agency, EEOC claimed the employer repeatedly declined to offer interpreters for staff meetings and instead provided handwritten notes and handouts and asked another deaf employee to interpret for other deaf employees. The suit is still in litigation.
EEOC also sued Walmart in 2021 for violating the ADA when the company allegedly ended the application process for an Illinois store position after an applicant requested that the company provide an ASL interpreter for an interview. Court records show the case is also still being litigated.