Whole Foods pays $65K for cashier's absence-related firing
- Whole Foods Market has agreed to pay $65,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- EEOC accused the nationwide grocer of violating federal law by failing to accommodate and then firing a cashier with a disability at one of its North Carolina stores. The cashier had a genetic kidney disease that causes uncontrolled growth of cysts in her kidneys, eventually leading to kidney failure. While working for Whole Foods, the cashier had a kidney transplant. Several years later, she was fired for two absences — one hospitalization and one doctor's visit — even though she told Whole Foods the reasons for the absences, EEOC said.
- In the two-year consent decree settling the case, Whole Foods also agreed to develop a disability accommodation policy, to provide training to region HR and the store's managers. It also agreed to post an employee notice concerning the lawsuit and explaining employee rights under federal anti-discrimination laws.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities unless doing so would cause an undue burden.
Employees don't have to invoke the ADA by name, and requests need not be in writing, according to EEOC. Instead, employees can use "plain English" to explain that they're having difficultly meeting some work requirement because of a physical or mental impairment — which is why manager training is so important. If an employee mentions needing time off for a back problem, that can trigger the employer's accommodation responsibilities, EEOC says.
The ADA can require an an exception to a policy as a reasonable accommodation, which can include leave policies. For example, EEOC takes the position that employers cannot apply a "no-fault" leave policy, under which employees are automatically terminated after they have been absent for a certain number of days, to an employee with a disability who needs more time off without considering whether an extension would be reasonable. The same goes for employees who have exhausted their Family and Medical Leave Act allotment. However, the law doesn't require employers to provide indefinite leave.
"An employer who is on notice that an employee's absence is related to her disability must comply with the ADA's mandate to reasonably accommodate her by making exceptions to its absenteeism policy if doing so doesn't cause an undue hardship," Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC's Charlotte District, said in a statement announcing the Whole Foods settlement.